EVEN people in their nineties can benefit from strength and endurance training usually reserved for elite athletes, according to a study.
The research into the athletic capacity of the very elderly comes as a new breed of endurance athletes in their seventies and eighties are reporting that they can not only run faster than they did in their twenties, but can improve performance year after year in defiance of the ageing process. Last year, the London marathon had 237 runners aged over 70, and 12 in their eighties.
In the latest study, published in the journal Age, researchers from the University of Navarra in Spain worked with 24 people aged between 91 and 96 over a 12-week period. One group of 11 were trained for two days a week with “multicomponent” exercises for strength and to improve balance. They were encouraged to try to walk faster, stand on one leg or count backwards from 100 while doing various exercises.
The 13 others did 30 minutes of “mobility” exercises — the sort of gentle stretching encouraged in nursing homes.
At the end of the experiment, the first group showed a significant improvement in walking speed; hip and knee flexibility; improvement in hand strength and ability to do verbal and arithmetical tasks.
In a separate, as yet unpublished study by the same researchers, 18 previously inactive people suffering mild dementia, with an average age of 88, demonstrated significant mental and physical improvements after exercise.
“We have shown this kind of exercise is entirely safe to do, and improves strength, power and muscle mass as well as mental function,” said Mikel Izquierdo-Redin, professor of physiotherapy at the university, who is leading the project.
Izquierdo is visiting Britain later this year to give lectures to senior academics interested in testing resistance and endurance training programmes on elderly people here.
Retired people make up 17% of the population, and Britain is lagging behind in recognising the benefits of exercise for them. The first set of government exercise guidelines for the over-65s was published only in 2011. That document spoke of “some health benefits” from two sessions a week of strength training for elderly people, but warned that many in the age group could be too unfit to take on much activity.
“These guidelines were the first official mention of strength training for elderly people,” said Richard Ferguson, a senior lecturer in exercise physiology at Loughborough University, who contributed to the government document. “There is not enough funding for this kind of research here. We can’t prevent age-related decline, but we can slow it down, and strength is as important as cardiovascular health and aerobic exercise.”
However, there is disagreement about what can be achieved. Jonathan Folland, reader in human performance, also at Loughborough, thinks few people will improve their athletic prowess beyond the age of 60. “It’s really hard, though not impossible,” he says.
Britain’s small but growing group of aged athletes is proving him wrong. Charles Eugster, 94, a retired dentist from Kensington in west London, who took up serious exercise when he began to gain weight in his eighties, has cut his training to three two-hour sessions a week, but says his performance in parkour and rowing, has still improved.
“I started to get better at it when I was 89,” he said. “It is as though something in my body has changed in a positive way. I don’t get colds any more either.”
The British Triathlon Federation, which now has almost 100 members over 70, against 44 in 2011, has just given a special award to Brian Forster, an 82-year-old retired chemist from Ashton Hayes, Cheshire, who won a world title for his age group last year by taking 90 seconds off his 2012 duathlon — running and cycling — performance time.
Forster, who trains three times a week, became an athlete having survived a stroke five years ago. “I feel like I have been given a second chance,” he said. “I’m going to continue running until I can’t go any more.”
Daphne Belt, 74, an antiques dealer from Littlehampton, West Sussex, who took up running when she was 50, and has taken part in several triathlons, said: “There is no question I’m faster now than I was when I was young.”
So far, none of them is a match for the Indian-born farmer Fauja Singh, 102, who retired from marathon races only last year. He still runs and walks 10 miles a day.