Active Voice: Never Stop Moving
By: Sarah Everman, Ph.D., James W. Farris, P.T., Ph.D., and Jack T. Daniels, Ph.D., FACSM
Sarah Everman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the kinesiology master’s program in the College of Graduate Health Studies at A.T. Still University, Mesa, Arizona. She earned her Ph.D. in the Department of Kinesiology at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. Her research interests include the role of branched-chain amino acids in insulin sensitivity and changes in cardiovascular fitness with aging.
James Farris, P.T., Ph.D., is a professor and chair of the Physical Therapy Department at A.T. Still University. He earned his Ph.D. in exercise physiology at Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. His research interests include prevention of cardiovascular disease throughout the lifespan.
Jack Daniels, Ph.D., FACSM, is an associate professor at A.T. Still University. He earned his Ph.D. in exercise physiology at the University of Wisconsin. He has co-authored more than 50 articles in scientific journals and his book, Daniels Running Formula, has been published in 10 languages. In his sports career, he won two Olympic medals, coached four Olympic runners, was a 1968 U.S. Olympic altitude consultant, coached more than 30 collegiate national champions, and was named Women’s Collegiate Cross-Country Coach of the 20th Century.
This commentary presents Dr. Everman’s views, and those of her two co-authors, on the topic of the research article that they had published together with one additional colleague in the January 2018 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise® (MSSE). Their MSSE journal article also was the focus of media stories that appeared last August in both Runner’s World and in The New York Times.
In the January 2018 issue of MSSE, we presented longitudinal data from a study that examined the cardiorespiratory fitness in a group of 26 elite male runners, all of whom had competed in the 1968 U.S. Olympic Trials. This longitudinal study, spanning a 45-year period, was made possible because of the relationship that Dr. Daniels developed and maintained with these world-class athletes. It is a testament to this group, and to their relationship with Dr. Daniels, that all who were physically able to return for testing 45 years after the initial testing did so with enthusiasm.
It is generally known that fitness declines with aging, which our study confirmed. However, we also showed that fitness would be relatively higher for these elite runners in later years if they avoided or minimized weight gain during the 45 years. Thus, avoiding weight gain can provide a relative improvement in cardiorespiratory fitness separate from other benefits of maintaining a normal weight during aging. We also learned that a higher VO2max in younger years was associated with a higher cardiorespiratory fitness in later years for these athletes, which mitigated the expected loss of fitness with aging. The athletes in our study experienced a precipitous drop in VO2max over the 45 years, but their higher initial fitness provided a higher ceiling from which any age-related decline might occur. Thus, by final testing, the mean VO2max of 42 mL/kg/min (12 METs) measured at their mean age of 69 years, reflects an aerobic capacity near/at the 95th percentile for peers of the same age. Therefore, these results support that maintaining a high level of fitness in younger years may also help protect aerobic functional capacity with aging.
Since preserving fitness with aging is critical, it is important to understand what contributes to the decline in VO2max. Our data showed that the decline in VO2max was significantly associated with the decline in ventilation, which suggests that pulmonary function may be a crucial consideration in maintaining fitness. More research is needed to explain this outcome, but factors that protect pulmonary function may bolster quality of life during aging.
There were differences in the activity level of the athletes during the years immediately preceding the final testing. Those with higher activity had higher fitness, suggesting that aging is not simply a function of time alone. The most active older adults were able to maintain impressively high fitness (VO2max values as high as 50 mL/kg/min, beyond age 66). Hence, the rate of aging was strongly influenced by continued physical activity. Interestingly, some of the athletes who were less successful in their professional running careers (in the 1960s and 1970s) were the most successful in Masters competitions and maintained higher fitness later in life than did other athletes in this group. Thus, being the “best” is not necessary; rather, achieving a high level of fitness in younger years and then maintaining lifelong fitness should be our message to younger and older athletes alike.
Not everyone can be as gifted as these athletes, nor does everyone achieve extraordinary fitness in their youth. But the message from these exceptional participants and my colleagues is simply to never stop moving!