Impairments to health and physical performance are not primarily a result of aging but of unfavorable lifestyle habits and lack of exercise. This is the position taken by Dieter Leyk and his coauthors in the new issue of Deutsches Ärzteblatt International (Dtsch Arztebl Int 2010; 107: 809).
Sporty elderly people have a life expectancy that is almost 4 years higher and are often faster than younger athletes.
In their study, the sports scientists analyzed the stamina of more than 600 000 marathon and half marathon runners and asked participants about their lifestyle habits and their health. Marathon running is particularly suitable for studying because participants have to put in sufficient training hours for the competition, and the athletes accommodate this into their day accordingly.
Unfavorable characteristics such as obesity, smoking, and lack of physical activity are rarer in runners, and reductions in physical performance are more likely to be the result of biological aging processes. These reductions make their presence felt only after the 54th year of life and are but slight. More than 25% of 50- to 69-year-olds had taken up running only in the preceding 5 years and participated in a marathon nonetheless. Of note: older participants do not have to train any harder to maintain their fitness than their younger rivals.