News | Monday, 2nd September 2019

It’s never too late: regular running in middle age helps fitness to ‘catch-up’

Older people who begin training after age 50 can still reap the benefits

It’s never too late
Starting regular running in middle age helps health and fitness to ‘catch-up’ to people who trained all their lives

People who start training later in life can have the same performance and health benefits as those who have trained all of their lives, new research has found.

Scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University tested the performance, muscle and bone health of masters athletes, people aged 60-85 years old who continue to compete at a high level in sport. A group had been competitive endurance runners all of their lives and another group had only started training after age 50.

They found that by the age of around 70, physical fitness, sports performance and muscle health were equally as good in both athlete groups despite a 30-year difference in training history.

The results, published in Frontiers in Physiology, could inform decisions of practitioners and policy makers who are working with middle-aged people living in communities who are thinking of taking up exercise to boost their health or fitness, but are worried that it may be too late to reap the full benefits.

Lower body fat 

Professor Jamie McPhee, Head of Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “It is important to understand whether the age at which people take up competitive endurance running influences muscle and bone health as well as body composition in later life because these systems directly affect a person’s ability to live a full and active life in older age. 

“Regular exercise is the best way to combat age-related declines of muscles and bones and to counter the slow but steady increase of body fat stores that affect most people in middle age. Before starting this research, we already knew that exercise is great at any age, but we were not sure whether it was possible for people starting training after age 50 to catch up with those who trained regularly all of their lives.”

A total of 150 master endurance runners completed health and exercise performance tests, as the researchers also studied a group of 59 healthy non-athletic older adults for comparison.

The participants had X-ray scans to test bone mineral density and body composition – fat mass and muscle mass – while performance was determined by taking the athlete’s highest ranked performance within the last two years and comparing it as a percentage of the world record for that age and distance. 

Muscle function was measured using a hand dynamometer to test grip strength and a platform to measure lower limb power when jumping.

The results showed very little difference between early and late starter master athletes, but both groups had 17% lower body fat and 12% greater leg muscle mass than the healthy non-athletic control group.

Improving health

Professor McPhee added: “Our research shows that long-term endurance training not only reduces fat mass, but may also help to maintain larger muscles. This is important as it can enable people to maintain a healthy weight and stay more active and independent for longer into older age.

“The values for body composition and athletic performance of the late starters were very similar to those of people who had trained all of their adult lives. This shows that it is never too late to start regular, intense endurance running, or possibly any other sports training or competition at the highest level of masters sports, at, or after, the age of 50 years – there are great performance and health benefits to be had.

“The results should be considered by practitioners when recommending physical activity for older adults aiming to reduce fat mass, gain leg lean mass or improve bone mineral density.

“Policy makers should also consider endurance training as an alternative, or addition, to resistance exercise to combat the steady loss of muscle mass and strength that occurs with ageing, known as sarcopenia – a disease associated with the loss of muscle mass, strength and function related to ageing.”

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