Run for Your Life
Of course, we all know that routine exercise and physical activity is good for us to look and feel better every day. What we don’t always think about is how our activity now affects us as we age.
A nearly 50-year study was published last week that looked at how physical fitness at an early age affects the body throughout life.
Jack Daniels (the exercise physiologist and running coach, not the whiskey) gathered 26 track and field Olympians before the Summer Olympics in 1968 and very extensively analyzed their bodies capabilities. In order to do this, he assessed their VO2 max. The study was very in depth, but essentially researchers analyzed a sample of more than 300 female twins for their physical ability and mental health that included thinking, learning, and memory. Over the span of 10 years, they concluded that in general, the twin who had more leg power at the start of the study sustained their cognition better and had fewer brain changes associated with aging.
VO2 max is the measure of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in during maximum exertion of effort. The more oxygen you can take in at the height of your body’s exertion, the healthier and more capable your body is during performance.
Daniels repeated these same tests with the Olympians three times over the 45-year period. It’s no surprise, the 1968 data showed that the subjects, who were in their mid-20s, to be in exceptional physical condition with aerobic capabilities in the 98th percentile for their age at an average max VO2 of 78 (average for a non-Olympian of this age is 40-42). In 1993, when the Olympians were in their mid-40s, the second test occurred with the Olympians average VO2 max at 57 as opposed to 32 – 35 max for the normal person. And finally, 22 of the original 26 were tested in 2013 in their mid-60s.
The lead researcher on the project, Dr. Claire Stevens puts it this way, “It's compelling to see such differences in cognition and brain structure in identical twins, who had different leg power ten years before. It suggests that simple lifestyle changes to boost our physical activity may help to keep us both mentally and physically healthy.
The results of the final 2013 test were staggering. A normal, non-Olympic athlete has an average VO2 max of 26-28. The athletes almost doubled the average VO2 max at an average of 42.
What does this mean for you, the average person who (most likely) has not had the level of training or time to commit to physical activity as an Olympian?
Think you can keep up with an Olympian or want to know just how far you are? I’ve tested my own VO2 max (I’m not even close to Olympic!) and would be happy to test yours.