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Older Exercisers Recover as Fast as Children

As lifelong exercisers age, they find they can’t hit a tennis ball or golf ball as hard, run as fast, lift as heavy, or perform as well, whatever their sport. A study from Yokohama City University in Japan shows that this gradual decline is caused by loss of muscle strength. However, the most significant finding of the study was that older men can recover from hard workouts as quickly as younger men (Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, June 2006). Another encouraging study in the same journal, from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, shows that men over 60 who exercise regularly are far stronger than their non-exercising counterparts.

A study from Brock University in Canada also shows that older people can recover from hard exercise as fast as young children can (Exercise and Sports Science Reviews, July 2006). The authors feel that previous studies on the subject are flawed. Since children cannot exercise at the same intensity as older people can, they do not put as much stress on their muscles as older people do and therefore do not suffer as much muscle damage. It is the decreased intensity causing less muscle damage that allows children to appear to recover faster from all-out exercise. Children can put only about 60 to 80 percent of the power per weight exerted by adults. They do not work as hard during intense exercise, evidenced by far less lactic acid in their blood streams. Children can do more repeat sets of lifting heavy weights because they do not lift as close to their maximum as adults do. They can do more “attempted all out” wind sprints than adults do because they don’t work as close to their maximum. So the decline in athletic performance with aging is not caused by failure to recover from hard exercise.

If you are an older athlete who competes in sports, you will be able to recover from your hard training days as fast as younger athletes, but you will gradually lose strength, speed and coordination over the years. Every muscle in your body is made of millions of individual fibers. Each fiber is innervated by a single nerve that causes it to contract. With aging, you lose nerve fibers. So with each loss of a nerve fiber, you lose use of the corresponding muscle fiber and, with fewer functioning muscle fibers, you lose strength. Coordination drops also because of the loss of nerve fibers. Since speed depends on strength, you also lose speed. However, if you exercise regularly, you enlarge each of the remaining individual muscle fibers. Even if you have fewer functioning fibers, the larger individual fibers can generate more force to make you stronger. The good news from these studies is that the same training principles apply at any age. Even if you cannot compete effectively against younger people, you are likely to find yourself winning age-group competitions as your peers drop out. If you are not a regular exerciser, it’s never too late to start.

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Dear Dr. Mirkin: I’m diabetic; does it matter when I exercise?

Exercise helps to prevent blood sugar from rising too high after meals. The only places that your body can store sugar are in blood, liver and muscles. When a diabetic’s muscles are full of sugar, dietary sugar goes from the intestines into the bloodstream, causing high spikes in blood sugar levels. On the other hand, when the muscles are empty, sugars go from the intestines into the bloodstream and then directly into muscles to prevent the spike. Several studies show that it doesn’t make any difference when you empty your muscle cells. Blood sugar spikes are prevented by exercising both before and after meals.

An exciting study from Maastricht University in the Netherlands shows that a single bout of vigorous exercise can help control blood sugar for 24 hours in people whose pancreas make no insulin whatever (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, December 2006). Exercise is a potent treatment for both Type I and Type II diabetics. Any diabetic who does not exercise regularly should check with his or her doctor and get started.

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Dear Dr. Mirkin: How can I tell how many calories I’m burning during a workout?

To help you determine how many calories you use during various activities, scientists recommend a common measure called a MET, the amount of energy you use when you sleep. It comes out to about one kilo-calorie per kilogram of body weight, or one half a calorie per pound. For example, a 130-pound person burns 60 calories per hour during sleep. A 155-pounder uses 70 calories per hour.

When you ride a bicycle at 12 miles per hour, you are exercising at about ten METS or 10 times the amount of energy that you use during sleep. That's the same as running a 10-minute mile, playing racquetball competitively, jumping rope at a moderate pace or playing in a soccer game. To show you how much you increase your metabolism during exercise, consider that 10 METS are equal to five times as much energy as you use when you wash dishes, shop, cook, iron or walk at a leisurely pace.

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June 26th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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