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Senior athletes prove age doesn't have to be an obstacle

This is an excerpt from Second Wind by Lee Bergquist.

Nine-year-olds can suddenly get up from the grass and run effortlessly across the yard. But adults who try to chase them usually move in slow motion. The body simply conspires to slow down as we age. We're told that lean muscle mass peaks at 25 and the heart and lungs reach their apex during our 30s. Then the slide begins. Muscles lose their flexibility. Bones become more brittle. Cells can't process oxygen as well. Exercise will hold back our inevitable deterioration.

My personal experiences with masters sprinting introduced me to the intersecting worlds of aging and athleticism and a certain subculture known as masters athletics--the commonly accepted term for men and women who compete against people their own age. Masters competitions usually begin at the age of 40. Depending on the sport, the ranks build in numbers until age 60 when sickness, injuries and and lethargy start to weed people out. But not everyone. Some of the most fascinating people I've met are athletes in their 70s and 80s. They are the fortunate few with the health and fire in their bellies to keep going.

Older athletes are able to tap into the countless number of advances made possible by the huge infusion of money into sports. In Baton Rouge, one of the men I ran against was Neville Hodge, then 45. He was bald and crow's feet crinkled like river deltas around his eyes. He was the track coach at Morgan State University in Baltimore and a three-time Olympian for the United States Virgin Islands. He told me he videotaped his workouts so that he could look for flaws in his running. Afterward, he sat in an ice bath to reduce inflammation in his muscles. He thought such tools helped him break the world record that year for the 100-meter dash in our age group in a scary-fast 10.96 seconds. In the early 1900s, he would have been among the fastest sprinters in the world--regardless of age.

Even for those with much less talent, a cottage industry of fitness training has mushroomed to help older athletes. Technology also helps. A 60-year-old swimmer can glide through the water in the same drag resistant swimsuits as Olympians. A weekend cyclist with an extra $7,000 or $8,000 can pedal models of carbon-fiber bicycles favored in the Tour de France. There are heart-rate monitors, body-fat calculators, and low impact exercise equipment specifically designed to reduce the wear and tear on the body.

Baby boomers "are the first generation that never stopped exercising," said Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine and is a clinical assistant professor of the department of orthopaedic surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. In the late 1990s, he came up with a description for ailing jocks--he called it "boomeritis"--after he found himself treating a steady stream of adults who refused to temper their exercise as they got older. DiNubile likes to say that we've extended our life span, but we have not extended the warranty on our bodies. Muscles, bones, tendons, tissues, spinal disks all deteriorate with time. He counsels his clients to exercise regularly, to avoid overuse injuries by moderating or diversifying activities, and to get good rehabilitation after an injury. "Every time I'm in the office, I'm treating someone who's been injured in their effort to be fit," he said.

But the threat of injury isn't an excuse for life on the couch. The human body was made to be used. Today, swimmers in middle age are capable of turning in their fastest times ever. Men and women are building muscle mass in their 80s.

Weight training actually can make muscles younger, according to a 2007 study by the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, California. Researcher Simon Melov examined the mitochondrial function of muscle of men and women who were 65 and older and compared the results with those of men and women in their late teens and 20s. He took samples of muscle tissue before and after six months of resistance training and found that the old muscles had genetic characteristics similar to the muscles of the younger population.

When James Fries of Stanford University began a long-term study of runners in 1984, many scientists feared that the running boom would produce a flood of orthopedic injuries or cause permanent damage to its practitioners in old age. Fries, now a professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford, didn't think that would happen. He reasoned that keeping the body moving would extend longevity. Unquestionably, running can cause wear and tear. But it also helps muscles, ligaments, and bones become stronger, said Dr. Eliza Chakravarty of Stanford, a rheumatologist and one of the authors of the study, whose results were published in 2008. The study of 500 runners found that they had fewer disabilities, had a longer active life span, and were half as likely to die at an early age as a comparable group of nonrunners. "There are tremendous benefits to regular exercise," Chakravarty told me.

More Excerpts From Second Wind