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Investing in your health now pays off in your golden years.

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Bodies change with age, even if the numbers on the scale stay the same. Muscle is lost and fat is gained, which makes your jeans fit differently in your 50s and 60s than they did in your 30s and 40s.

It’s easy to blame changes in body shape on aging, but most people become more sedentary as the decades add up, making it difficult to determine whether inactivity or age is responsible for the frumpier version of ourselves. But what if we didn’t slow down with each successive decade? Would we still be able to rock that Size 10, or is a 50-plus year-old body destined to be softer, rounder and heavier?

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There’s no shame in our changing bodies. But not enough muscle combined with too much fat, especially if it’s distributed around the abdomen, has a negative effect on health and physical function. Known as sarcopenic obesity, it’s associated with an increased risk of metabolic and cardiovascular disease regardless of age. Muscle mass is lost and weight is gained at a faster rate later in life, which raises the likelihood of sarcopenic obesity with each decade past our 40s.

Does that mean middle age marks the end of your body as you knew it?

Being active helps. But how much exercise do you need to maintain your youthful physique?

Researchers studying the trajectory of aging are hoping masters athletes can shed more light on the effects of exercise on mature bodies. These over-40 men and women don’t just hit the gym on a regular basis, they train toward specific performance goals and compete regularly in strength, speed and/or endurance events. Hence the unique opportunity for researchers to study the impact various types of exercise has on age-related changes to muscle mass and body fat.

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One such study by a group of Finnish researchers compared fat distribution and the amount of muscle in the arms and legs of male athletes in their 20s and 30s with male masters athletes in their 70s and 80s. Both age groups included weightlifters, power lifters, throwers, jumpers, sprinters, hurdlers, long-distance runners, orienteers and cross-country skiers. Also included in the study were age-matched healthy, but less active, men who represented the more sedentary version of the population.

The researchers hypothesized that athletes who participated in activities that demanded high levels of strength would have more muscle mass than endurance athletes and the less-sporty research subjects, regardless of their age. They also anticipated that masters athletes would carry less excess fat than sedentary older adults.

The results offered a mix of surprise and confirmation. As expected, the strength-trained athletes had more muscle mass than their inactive peers, regardless of age. Irrespective of the type of sport, upper body strength showed a greater difference than lower body strength when comparing strength and power athletes to endurance athletes in both the older and younger groups.

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Also not a surprise was that the sprinters and endurance athletes had less body fat than the least active study subjects and the strength-trained athletes.

What did raise the eyebrows of the researchers is that strength-trained athletes carried similar amounts of body fat as the least active, a finding that was consistent in the older and younger groups.

Despite this unexpected finding, the researchers noted that only three per cent of the older athletes were diagnosed with sarcopenic obesity, compered with 19 per cent of the non-active controls.

“Competitive sport participation throughout adult life leads to a considerably lower prevalence of sarcopenic obesity than a recreationally active lifestyle,” the researchers said.

Yet even with all that exercise, the most active older adults still put on a few extra pounds as they aged.

“Even lifelong athletes showed higher fat mass than younger athletes, regardless of athletic discipline,” the researchers said.

Does that mean our bodies will inevitably change as we get older? Probably, though health and happiness, not clothing sizes, should be the focus. The study’s results confirm the importance of being active and suggests that people need more a daily stroll around the neighbourhood if they want to combat the physical effects of aging, including weight gain. Weight training at least a couple times a week will slow down the loss of muscle and help make the chores of everyday life easier to accomplish. Regular moderate intensity aerobic exercise, a brisk walk, bike ride or swim will keep the heart in great shape and lessen the impact of the extra pounds we carry once we pass middle age.

This study provides more proof that investing in your health now pays off in your golden years.

Hitting the weight room and the treadmill will make life’s simple pleasures, like playing with your grandchildren, traveling to new destinations with friends and learning a new sport, more attainable and enjoyable. And who knows, there may even be a podium finish in your future if you end up embracing the active lifestyle of a masters athlete. It’s never too late to sport a medal around your neck.

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