How often do you joke that you’re getting old and out of shape? Do you expect heart function, breathing ability, and muscle strength to decline? Many of us do. Instead, we could stay open minded. Since expectations may influence behavior, I invite you to challenge those beliefs, and your health outcomes. Many older athletes, known as masters athletes, are showing us what’s possible.
According to a 2002 study, maximum heart rate and VO2max (breathing capacity) do drop at an average of 10% per decade from age 25 to age 85. But while exercise may get more challenging as we age, age is a poor predictor of health. Older adults are signing up in droves for athletic competitions, and many masters athletes out-perform younger counterparts. It makes you wonder how much decline is really inevitable, and seems to confirm the news that consistent physical activity and eating can offset some of the detrimental effects of aging.
Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RND, CSSD, FAND, is a retired nutrition professor who specialized in gerontology-focused sports dietetics for over 30 years. She says that a habitually active 75-year-old may have a higher level of fitness than a sedentary 50-year-old, especially when it comes to measures of VO2max, muscle strength, and flexibility. Older adults who exercise and eat a healthy diet may actually be in better shape than those who are younger in chronological age. After seeing videos of 90 and 100-year-old yogis, I believe it! Older adults who exercise and eat healthfully also have less chronic disease and are less likely to die than others of the same age.
“The truth is that while it may get more challenging to exercise as we age, age is a poor predictor of health. Older adults who exercise and eat a healthy diet may actually be in better shape those who are younger in chronological age.”
Exercise is understood, but what diet supports ongoing activity? To find out, doctors wish to study those who age well, like my grandmother Lydia, a cheerful and active 90-year- old. She takes no medication, has smooth skin, lives on her own, and volunteers! She tells the doctors she is too busy to sit hooked up to an ECG for their studies, but luckily, she is not stingy with her secrets. Grandma stresses the importance of a positive attitude, outdoor activity, and fresh, never overcooked food, especially fish, vegetables, and seed oils. She takes vitamins A, B, C, D, and E, and omega 3s (US/CA) daily. So is this the healthy diet we are looking for?
Meta-analyses of feeding trials show many similarities between her diet and those with benefits; Increasing consumption of vegetable oils, nuts, fish, and vegetables rich in unsaturated fats (e.g., avocado), in place of either animal fats or refined grains, starches, and sugars, is proven beneficial for the regulation of blood sugar and metabolic health. A 2010 study led by York University researchers found that athletic performance was markedly affected by blood sugar levels.
Her omega-3 consumption seems supported too. In a 2011 study published in the American Society for Nutrition, omega-3 fatty acids or a placebo were given for eight weeks to a group of healthy older adults, and the group who consumed the omega-3s saw increases in muscle formation. Study authors advocate the consumption of omega-3s for the prevention and treatment of sarcopenia, or age-related loss of muscle. For all ages, the Coaching Association of Canada states that no athlete should be consuming less than 1 gram of essential fat per kilogram of body weight for energy.
Consuming PUFAs like flax oil (US/CA), sesame oil, and sunflower oil create effects in the body similar to exercise. Functional Medicine practitioner Chris Kresser, M.S., L.Ac, states that PUFAs promote a pro-metabolic effect that is in some ways similar to that generated by thyroid hormone, progesterone, exercise, vitamin D, vitamin A, magnesium, and selenium. Higher levels of omega-3 create a cell membrane fluidity that can act similarly to mood stabilizers, also. Being in the right mood to get outside and move your body increases your chance of exercise, and exercise has the added benefit of increasing one’s psychological well-being, meaning that once you exercise and consume omega oils, the more likely you are to stay active and happy. If you combine that with resistance and flexibility training, lowering chances of injury, you have a recipe for continued exercise and staying at a higher level of athletic performance as you age.
Since omega-3 and -6 fatty acids are essential, you would think everyone would consume enough, but it is simply not the case. It is “normal” to be deficient, although it is not “natural”. Just because most of the population are chronically deprived of essential omega-3 PUFAs as they age, does not mean that the problems common in most of the population are inevitable. In other words, though older adults at large may have problems with cognition, muscle loss, and blood clotting, and may not be in a good enough mood to exercise…the same population may also have widespread omega-3 deficiency.
Just because both are normal is no indication that it is natural, nor inevitable. Put together, this could mean that older adults who consume higher amounts of omega-3 and -6 PUFAs could essentially feel more energized, have better metabolism, and maintain more muscle than older adults who consume less, even if their activity levels were the same—although it is possible that they would be naturally more inclined to stay active.