An unusual and noteworthy sporting event wrapped up another round of competition this week in the Twin Cities. It featured 19 different sports and drew some of the best older athletes in the country. The biennial National Senior Games, which began in 1987 with about 2,500 athletes, now attracts more than 12,000 competitors, ranging from age 50 to 100-plus. Among this year's entrants was 75-year-old Kathy Bergen of La Canada Flintridge, California, a returning athlete who has set world and national records in the 100-meter dash and the high jump for seniors.
"I love getting older. I couldn't wait for my birthday this year," said Bergen in anticipation of this year's games. Her excitement stemmed from the fact that at 75, she was placed in a new five-year age group, allowing her an opportunity to set even more records.
"Every five years, you kind of renew yourself," she told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
As I said, this is a different kind of competition — poles apart from the more familiar world of athletic competition, where stepping up at 40 is considered pushing it. And the event has established some important performance benchmarks worthy of attention.
Dr. Pamela Peeke is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and a board member of the foundation that runs the games. Last year, she learned of a study at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology that created a sophisticated algorithm for an online fitness calculator. It rapidly figures someone's aerobic capacity and relative fitness age based on his or her sex, resting heart rate, waist size and exercise routine. Though National Senior Games participants are not professional athletes, most train year-round and are more physically active than other people their age. To see just how their lifestyle affects the aging process, prior to the event, all of this year's qualifiers were asked to use the online calculator. The event organizers set up a special site for the participants so that their data could be isolated.
Virtually all of the participants completed the test, producing more than 4,200 responses. What did the researchers learn? The average chronological age was 68. Yet the average biological age lined out at 43. Close to every test produced a lower fitness age than chronological age. Another fascinating part of the findings is that the majority of the athletes at the National Senior Games didn't begin serious training until middle age or older.
Another recently published study, conducted by the Duke Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, found that even at an age as early as 38, some people are biologically much older than their chronological age. For this study, which tracked a control group for 12 years, researchers developed 18 measurements they believe correspond with aging. The study group also completed a series of physical function tests.
"The study members who appeared to be aging faster in their physiologies were also doing less well on the physical function," noted David Belsky, who led the study. "They are only 38 years old, but already there's variation in their balance, in the coordination, in their strength." Some of the scores on the tests looked like the scores of people who are in their 50s or 60s, he added. Also troubling, those aging faster looked much older.
These examples further support the growing belief that being more active can delay the functional decline that accompanies aging — not just for seniors but also for younger generations. If you consistently pay attention to physical activity and overall healthy habits, you can slow the aging process. According to CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus, genetics account for about 20 percent of how people age. Environmental and lifestyle factors play a much larger role.
The major hurdle we face in reversing or slowing functional decline is not found on the track field. In this country, we have developed a culture of inactivity from which no generation is immune. It's called sitting disease. Studies show that our oldest adults and retirees tend to spend the most time sitting, typically eight to 12 waking hours each day.
Another bar to leap is chronic pain conditions, which can lead to sedentariness and, in turn, obesity and other chronic conditions. A big obstacle is the pain of arthritis, which results in a decline in physical activity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, arthritis affects more than 52 million adults in the United States and is the most common cause of disability.
Arthritis aside, according to the Center for Healthy Aging and the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, it takes just two weeks of physical inactivity for those who are physically fit to lose a significant amount of their muscle strength. Active older people who become sedentary for a couple of weeks are said to lose about 25 percent of their strength. The loss of muscle mass is considered more critical for older people because it is likely to have a greater impact on their general health and quality of life.
Unlike medicine, exercise does not come with dosing instructions. We all must work to find a level that works for us and try to maximize it. We also all need someone to push us along. This even applies to Ironman champion Mirinda Carfrae.
"Some days I get up, I'm sore, I'm, you know, on the edge of getting sick, I'm, like, just beat up, and I don't want to go out," Carfrae says. "I just kind of make myself go out there and do it."
Such is the champion mindset, one the participants of the National Senior Games have clearly embraced.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.