Well, is there or isn't there? Is there good news or is there uncertainty? Certainly, there is good news, but there is also a small amount of uncertainty. The uncertainty concerns the question "is it genetics or is it training?"
What is it all about? It's about Motor Units.
Motor Units are the driving force of muscle strength, therefore of movement and motion - as obviously there's no movement without muscles. Motor Units consist of the union of a motor neuron and a muscle fibre; the neuron provides the muscle fibre with the instruction to contract and the muscle fibre does the contracting. Within the collection of muscle fibres that make up the whole muscle, the more Motor Units you have the more muscle mass and strength you have.
The interest in this is aroused by some recently published research - from a group of scientists from Guelph University in Canada, led by Professor Geoff Power - working on the physiology of muscle ageing. They compared the muscle condition of a number of Masters Athletes with that of similar age non-athletes and found that the Masters Athletes had greater muscle mass and muscle strength than the non-athletes. As we know from a previous article, a Masters Athlete is any athlete above the age of 35 and who competes in Masters Athletics competitions, but the group that was studied for this research were in fact 65-plus, many of them in their 80's. Professor Power described them as the 'crème de la crème' of ageing as his study group included 7 world champions, and of the rest all were ranked within the top four of their individual sport.
The measurements that the scientists took showed that the Masters Athletes had on average 14% more muscle mass and 25% more leg strength than the non-athletes. And the reason for this is that the Masters Athletes had 28% more Motor Units than the non-athletes. As evidence that this is not just about sporting excellence but also about better functioning in general, the researchers also found that their subjects had better muscle control, "as indicated by lower ... jitter and jiggle values". Presumably, that means that when their muscles were under stress the Masters Athletes retained better control over them.
So the good news - described in one online report as "Intensive Exercise - a Fountain of Youth for Aging Muscles" - is that people in their sixties, seventies and eighties who do what was referred to as "high-level exercise" are reaping the benefits, both in any sporting achievements and in their ability to function in life in general. Power's informed opinion, as is the case with all scientists and exercise and fitness professionals, is that exercise is one of the best ways of ensuring successful ageing, even for people who aren't athletes or taking part in sports. The benefits of "high-level" exercise extend to non-athletes since "exercise is definitely an important contributor to functional performance (in age)" he says. With so much anecdotal evidence that we come across showing that exercise is beneficial for ageing, it's reassuring to find that the scientific evidence shows that the benefits exist at as fundamentally as the cellular level.
So far, so good. But now for the uncertainty aspect, for Power goes on to say that "we cannot rule out the importance of genetics”. He says that he now wants to undertake further research to establish whether his results are due to genetics or training.
In other words, were the subjects stronger because they were long-term trained Masters Athletes or were they Masters Athletes because they were stronger? Were these people drawn to continued participation in sport and exercise due to their innate, higher than average physical abilities, or were they able to achieve higher than average abilities due to their work in the gym and on the track training themselves to take part in the competitions?
We have observed that scientists working in this area generally talk about ways to slow down or reduce the 'loss' of strength as you age, as in this quote from the University of Guelph news release "With normal aging, the nervous system loses motor neurons, leading to a loss of Motor Units, reduced muscle mass, less strength, speed and power. That process speeds up substantially past age 60. 'Therefore, identifying opportunities to intervene and delay the loss of Motor Units in old age is of critical importance,' Power said."
Avoiding the loss of muscle mass is one thing, particularly if you start doing so at a point where you still have a functionally adequate amount of muscle mass, say in your forties. But for people who start when muscle loss has already begun, the real holy grail of working out is the ability to reverse it. In other words, can you build muscle when you're older?
When we at SGSC were in our forties, the accepted wisdom was that muscle could not be built after the age of 50 or so, something that did not really concern us then. Now, in our sixties and wanting to continue to improve at our sports, it is of more immediate relevance - happily it no longer appears to be what people believe. When we interviewed Charles Eugster, for instance, he told us that starting in his eighties he had reversed his muscle loss through working with a body-building trainer, and his current coach Sylvie told us of her own experiments in which she reported muscle mass increase of up to 800% (presumably from a very low base) in a group of care home residents she trained. Any casual search online reveals plenty of age-group competitions for body-builders even into one's nineties.
All of our (unscientific) evidence on this site strongly points to huge benefits from training as you get older, and maintaining the physical strength of, say, an average 30 or 40 year old is just one of them. So let's hope that Professor Power and his colleagues come back with the results that support our belief, and we will continue to spread the word that strength and fitness training is the most important thing you can do for yourself to ensure a good quality of life for as long as you have life.