Fit at Any Age

If Ponce de Leon were alive today he’d probably be in a laboratory studying mitochondria. Instead of searching the Americas for the fountain of youth, Dr. de Leon might be a physiologist examining the differences between the power plants of the cells in unfit, lethargic mice versus the ones in fit, active mice. So what would the good doctor find when he peered into his microscope? He’d see the cells of the unfit mice were what he expected in an older animal: full of mutations in the mitochondria, which many scientists think cause cells to break down over time (read age). So, what would the cells of the fit mice look like? That’s another story… Olga Kotelko is one of the world’s greatest athletes. She owns 23 track and field world records including a blazing 23.95 second 100 meter dash. During the world track and field championships this Canadian bettered her competition in the javelin throw by more than 20 feet. She also owns the 200-meter and 400-meter world records and her shot put and high jump marks are unmatched by anyone in the 91-year-old’s class.

Eleven years her junior, Lew Hollander visited Kona, Hawaii last October for the Ironman World Championships. This iconic race allows competitors 17 hours to swim 2.1 miles in the ocean, bike 112 miles through boiling temperatures and then, run a marathon (26.2 miles). Mr. Hollander finished in less than 17 hours…for the 20th time.

Ed Whitlock is the fastest age-graded marathoner in the world. Five years ago, at age 73, he ran a 2 hour and 45 minute marathon, which equates to a sub-2 hour and 4 minute marathon for a 20-year-old athlete. What’s his training secret? He runs every day around the local cemetery.

So, Dr. de Leon, what do these three wunderkinds (ha ha) have in common? Simon Melov and Mark Tarnopolsky have studied the impact exercise has on older mice at Canada’s McMaster University. They found mice which exercised at a moderate pace three times a week for 45 minutes maintained their levels of healthy mitochondria in their cells. In fact, not only were their muscle cells superior to the less active mice, but every other tissue, from the blood to the brain to the heart, were all healthier.

Other researchers suggest more intense exercise may deliver even better results. Two recent studies involving middle-aged runners suggest years and years of running have protected them at the chromosomal level. That is, exercise may stimulate the production of telomerase, an enzyme that maintains chromosomal health when genes divide. This may explain why older athletes are not only more fit, but also less likely to suffer from age-related illness.

Obviously exercise delivers big results for mice, but how much exercise is enough for us? The best answer is consistency. Mr. Whitlock runs every day. He may be much slower than he was, but he stills does it every day. Ms. Kotelko trains consistently even when she’s not competing (three times a week for up to three hours of planks, pushups, presses and squats), but doesn’t push quite as hard as she once did.

Mr. Hollander suggests passion is also important. “I’m not done yet!  I’m only 80 years old now, I gotta hope I have a future,” he says. “You gotta keep the carrot dangled in front of the donkey…It’s an evolution.  Every day it’s just like getting through the Western States (ultramarathon). It’s one step after another, you know, and you just keep going.  And that’s what life is.”

Read moreabout 80-year-old Ironman, Lew Hollander. 

Read the New York Times Magazine articleabout Olga Kotelko.

Learn moreabout Ed Whitlock.