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Posted: October 19, 2004

Science of Sport: Age And Fat: As you get older, do you have to get fatter?

The bad news proclaimed by the popular press and various research articles is that ageing inevitably carries with it two negative consequences: (1) you lose muscle mass and get fatter, and (2) your blood-fat profile worsens, as total cholesterol piles up and HDL- cholesterol (aka 'good cholesterol') takes a fall.

But are those changes inevitable? And can exercise help prevent them? In two words, no and yes. We answer that way because scientists at the University of Southern California recently examined 206 veteran athletes (129 males, 77 females), checking carefully their VO2maxs, training histories, body compositions, and HDL-cholesterol levels. The athletes were also divided into two groups - those aged 40 to 60 and those over the age of 60.

The bad news was that VO2max headed south steadily in line with ageing. For example, in males the young (40 to 60) group, with a mean age of 50 years, had an average VO2max of 50, while the old group, with an average age of 67, held VO2maxs of only 41, about an 18-per cent dip. That was true even though both groups of males - young and old - were running about 30 miles per week.

For females, VO2max free-fell from 43 to 35, about a 19- per cent drop, as average age advanced from 49 to 68 (note that in both sexes the loss in aerobic capacity was about 1 per cent per year). However, older females were also running fewer weekly miles - just 21, while their younger counterparts were hanging in at 30 miles per week, so the aerobic downturn wasn't too unexpected.

Fortunately, the age-related VO2max downgrade was the only bad news provided by the study. The good news was that body fat didn't advance significantly in either males or females as they aged. For example, the young group of males had body-fat readings of 18 per cent, exactly the same composition found in men 17 years older who were running similar mileage levels. In females, body fat nudged slightly upward from 23 to 26 per cent from the younger to older group, but the difference was not statistically significant.

The HDL-cholesterol news was even better. Overall, HDL of the 67-year-old men was 65, while HDL for the 50-year-old youngsters was 62.5. And the blood chemistry of the women was fantastic - an 81.5 HDL for the older females and 72.8 for the spring chickens.

The verdict from Southern Cal? Veteran athletes who maintain their training volumes as they age from their 40s into their 70s are pretty well protected from negative, age-related changes in body composition and blood fats. That's great motivation to maintain one's mileage levels!

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