The Benefits of Endurance for Longevity
We have all heard that competing in endurance sports will “break your joints” or that you will need a heart transplant after your next ultra. This article is meant to give you the facts about endurance exercise and how it affects the body as we continue to age.
As we age there are multiple systems that tend to get less efficient. Muscle mass decreases, metabolism slows, and connective tissue becomes stiffer. The rate of these effects is determined by multiple factors including genetics, nutrition, physical activity, etc. So, the real question is what can we do to slow these effects?
Welcome to the magical pill of endurance exercise! Let’s break it down into three systems that benefit; lean muscle mass, cardiac health, and connective tissue health.
The ability of muscles to retain strength is essential not only for strength and endurance but also for functional independence. A past study looked at muscle mass and peak torque in master’s athletes, ages 40-81 who trained 4-5 times per week. They found that these athletes had maintained their strength and lean muscle mass throughout aging, proving that muscle mass and strength do not decline as a function of aging alone when movement is involved.
Other studies have found that masters athletes competing in lifelong endurance activities have shown long term changes in stroke volume, blood flow and tissue oxygenation. This study found that long time endurance athletes had hearts up to 30 years younger than their chronological age. Although short term studies looking at acute effects on the cardiovascular system show increased stress, the adaptive response of the cardiac system continued to get stronger with recovery. Which makes a lot of sense since the heart is an essential endurance muscle.
Connective tissue is the part of your joints that allow it to move smoothly. These tissues are very similar to muscles ability to get stronger when stressed. Cartilage and ligaments of endurance athletes have been shown to be stronger and thicker when compared to sedentary individuals. One study looked at life-long endurance runners and found that connective tissue of the patellar tendon was thicker in these athletes when compared to untrained individuals. This protective stress on the connective tissues is key to slowing and even stopping the aging process of the connective tissues.
When looking at the higher end of endurance sports and longevity we find similar effects. A study that looked at 834 cyclists that competed in the Tour de France and compared them to the general population of each individual’s country. This study found that the average lifespan of these riders were 8 years longer than their respective countries averages. Now this doesn’t mean you have to jump into the tour to enhance your longevity. However, it does show that there may be a correlation with long distance endurance activity and a longer lifespan. So next time your friends and family suggest that their soft and cushy couch is better for their body, pass along a little knowledge and sign up for that next race!
Sources: Wroblewski, A. P., Amati, F., Smiley, M. A., Goodpaster, B., & Wright, V. (2011). Chronic exercise preserves lean muscle mass in masters athletes. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 39(3), 172-178. Levine, B. D. (2014). Can Intensive Exercise Harm the Heart?: The Benefits of Competitive Endurance Training for Cardiovascular Structure and Function. Circulation, 130(12), 987-991. Guezennec, C. Y., & Krzentowski, R. (2017). Muscle Physiology in Athletes. In Muscle Injuries in Sport Athletes (pp. 3-18). Springer, Cham. Couppé, C., Svensson, R. B., Grosset, J. F., Kovanen, V., Nielsen, R. H., Olsen, M. R., ... & Aagaard, P. (2014). Life-long endurance running is associated with reduced glycation and mechanical stress in connective tissue. Age, 36(4), 9665. Sanchis-Gomar, F., Olaso-Gonzalez, G., Corella, D., Gomez-Cabrera, M. C., & Vina, J. (2011). Increased average longevity among the “Tour de France” cyclists. International journal of sports medicine, 32(08), 644-647.