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How Aging Athletes Stay in the Game

Aging athletes may need to think twice about “powering through” intense training

Illustrations by Daniel Downey

When New York investment banker Michael McClintock of Macquarie Capital died of a cardiac arrest in 2013 after exercising, it baffled those who knew him. Only 55, McClintock had been physically fit, passionate about skiing, cycling and golf, and had even completed his first Olympic-length triathlon—the picture of baby boomer health. But McClintock’s death is a cautionary tale for aging athletes.

As they move into middle age and beyond, baby boomers—the generation that led the fitness revolution of the ’70s and ’80—are rewriting the script for growing older. The good news, judging by soaring participation rates among people over 40 in running and multisport events, is that they have long recognized the multiple benefits of exercise, such as physical strength, improved balance, cardiovascular health and mental sharpness. The bad news is that many fail to adjust their fitness routines as they age, and sometimes that failure can prove fatal.

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Athletes hitting middle age become more susceptible to inflammation, which can accelerate cellular aging. They’re also more prone to injury, and their muscle mass and aerobic capacity diminishes. These body changes are not a prohibition on athletic performance, but they do mean that with age, the same exercise habits we pursued in our 20s and 30s can become less effective and even harmful.

So, what’s the wrong way to exercise? In short, pretending you still have the cells of a 20-year-old.

I’ve written a lot about inflammation—a process characterized by a cell’s inability to recover from a major metabolic challenge. Among these challenges are the familiar culprits associated with disease: poor diet (the cell is malnourished), emotional stress (too much adrenaline drives the cell to work beyond its limits), poor sleep (inadequate recovery time) and excessive physical activity (the cell works beyond its capacity to recover).

While the cells of a 20-year-old can handle long endurance workouts, little sleep and a poor diet without feeling many negative effects, this ability dwindles with age. Many of us will personally experience the shift in the form of worsening hangovers, longer mile-timed runs and prolonged recovery from jet lag and travel. At the cellular level, this damage becomes apparent in other ways as well, especially in our muscle fibers, bones and cardiac capacity. It becomes difficult to maintain muscle strength and flexibility, bone density can diminish and our hearts become less efficient at delivering oxygen.

Not only does excessive duration of exercise lead to inflammation, but a Tufts University study has also linked it to atrial fibrillation.

So, what’s the right way to exercise? Reduce inflammation. This means avoiding long periods of nonstop strenuous or extreme training intensity and inadequate recovery times. Not only does excessive duration of exercise lead to inflammation, but a Tufts University study has also linked it to atrial fibrillation. Other research suggests it may negatively affect cardiac anatomy, play a role in the onset of coronary artery disease and increase the risk of sudden cardiac death. Additionally, endurance training increases the risk of muscular and skeletal injury through the repetitive stress it places on small groups of bones and muscles.

Instead of marathon-length runs or 50-mile bike rides, aging athletes should opt for short high-intensity interval training (HIIT), alternating short periods of rest with equal periods of maximum cardiac effort. These sessions usually last for no more than 30 minutes. This regimen reduces the risk of overtraining injuries and cardiac damage, and has proven just as effective as longer periods of moderate intensity exercise.

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Outside of limiting long training sessions and ensuring adequate recovery time—never “train through” intense fatigue or injury—aging athletes can lessen the effects of inflammation through adequate sleep and proper supplementation. The benefits of curcumin, a compound in turmeric, are well documented, as are those of selenium and Coenzyme Q10. By directly inhibiting inflammatory molecules at the cellular level, these supplements can counteract the pro-inflammatory state believed to contribute to many age-related diseases. Your food is also a key supplement: Maximize its effect by adopting a Mediterranean diet—high in healthy fats, lean meat and fish, fruits and vegetables, and low in refined carbohydrates and sugar. These strategies, combined with age-appropriate training approaches like HIIT, will allow you to stay stronger and sharper for much longer. Get moving, but be smart.

One of the most popular HIIT regimens is the Tabata method. In 1996, Japanese researcher Izumi Tabata had two groups of athletes train at different levels of intensity and length: one group at moderate intensity for an hour, the other at intermittent high intensity for about four minutes. The second group’s subjects eventually showed vast increases in their aerobic capacity and musculature—something the first group didn’t achieve.

The Tabata method can be done just about anywhere. At home or traveling, you can use this regimen while cycling, running, doing body weight exercises or using an elliptical machine.

⇒ Warm up for 10 minutes, gradually increasing intensity.
⇒ Exert maximum effort for 20 seconds.
⇒ 10 seconds of rest or low effort.
⇒ Repeat this cycle of maximum/low effort exercise eight times.
⇒ Cool down for 10 minutes.

Dan Carlin, a physician, is CEO of WorldClinic, a New London, N.H.-based telemedicine practice.

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