The muscles of those who worked out looked like those of 25-year-olds and showed less of the inflammation that is tied to health problems as we age.
Regular exercise throughout adulthood may protect our muscles against age-related loss and damage later, according to an interesting new study of lifelong athletes and their thighs. Th e study finds that active older men’s muscles resemble, at a cellular level, those of 25-year-olds and weather inflammatory damage much better than the muscles of sedentary older people.
Th e study also raises some cautionary questions about whether waiting until middle age or later to start exercising might prove to be challenging for the lifelong health of our muscles. Physical aging is a complicated and enigmatic process, as any of us who are living and experiencing it know. Precipitated by little-understood changes in the workings of our cells and physiological systems, it proceeds in stuttering fi ts and starts, affecting some people and body parts earlier or more noticeably than others.
Muscles are among the body parts most vulnerable to time. Almost all of us begin losing some muscle mass and strength by early middle age, with the process accelerating as the decades pass. While the full causes for this decline remain unknown, most aging researchers agree that a subtle, age-related rise in inflammation throughout our bodies plays a role.
“A lot of studies show that higher circulating inflammatory factors in people are associated with greater loss of muscle mass,” says Todd Trappe, a professor of exercise science at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., who oversaw the new study with his brother Scott Trappe and other researchers.
Dr. Trappe and his collaborators, who long have been studying the physiology of older athletes, also knew that physically fi t people tend to have lower levels of inflammation in their bodies than inactive people. So, the researchers wondered, would active, older people also have more and healthier muscle mass than other older people? And if so, what might that tell us about how human muscles can optimally age?
Taken as a whole, the results suggest that long-term exercise may help aging muscles remain healthy in part by readying them to dissipate inflammation, Dr. Trappe says. But on the flip side, sedentary living seems to set up muscles to overreact to strain and remain inflamed, potentially leading to fewer muscular gains when someone does exercise. Th is study was small, though, and examined the men’s muscles only once, soon aft er exercise. It did not look into whether and how their muscles actually changed over time with training.
More important, the findings should not discourage middle-aged or older people who have been inactive from starting to visit the gym, Dr. Trappe says. “Even if inflammation gets in the way a bit at first, your muscles will respond and grow,” he says, and eventually should start to resemble those of people who have been exercising lifelong.