In an article published in the “Physician and Sports Medicine” in September 2011, researchers looked at a cross-section of high-level recreational athletes (aged 40-81) – 20 men and 20 women - who trained 4-5 times a week for their sport. Most were runners, swimmers, or cyclists. The researchers measured the athletes’ composition of lean muscle mass, body fat, and muscle strength in the quadriceps (thigh muscles) and found that both muscle mass and muscle strength were preserved as athletes aged and there was a lack of fatty infiltration over time. In fact, when compared to healthy “controls” – people of the same age, but with a more sedentary lifestyle – the athletes were significantly stronger and their strength did not decline with age. Magnetic Resonance Images (MRIs) demonstrated that the quadriceps of a 40 year-old triathlete was virtually indistinguishable from that of a 70 year-old triathlete. In comparison, the quadriceps of a 74 year-old sedentary man was shrivelled and full of fatty tissue.
This doesn’t mean you have to be a high-level athlete to preserve your muscle strength. However, the saying “use it or lose it” seems to apply here. Habitual exercise can be a safeguard against age-related declines in function. Exercise at any age stimulates the production of protein in the muscle, resulting in increased muscle size and muscle strength. If you stay active, odds are you’ll remain more functionally independent into the twilight years of your life.