By Jeanne Johnsto
The fountain of youth might just be in a lap pool near you, according to research at Indiana University Bloomington's Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming, which is examining the effects of long-term participation in vigorous activity on "optimal aging."
The researchers are adding a new twist to aging research by studying a very active population. Recent studies, says Counsilman Center Director Joel Stager, often are drawn from a diseased or declining population, casting them as the 'general' population.
"Are Masters Swimmers unique, or are we what 'normal' people should look like?" Stager recently told USMS Swimmer, the official magazine of United States Masters Swimming.
The IUB researchers conducted a battery of tests on elite swimmers -- United States Masters Swimmers competing in the U.S. championships in 2004 and in the FINA world championships at Stanford in 2006. They measured age markers, whose physiological functional capacity typically decline by 0.5 percent to 1 percent per year beginning around the age of 35, and compared their findings with similar data collected on the general population. From their 2004 data, they found that regular and fairly intensive swimming substantially delayed the decline of such age markers as blood pressure, muscle mass, blood chemistry and pulmonary function.
"We're starting to find out that a lot of the decline is probably related to a decline in activity rather than aging per se," said Stager, a professor in IUB's Department of Kinesiology. "The hypothesis is that activity preserves physiological function."
The researchers found that by regularly swimming 3,500 to 5,000 yards (roughly 2 to 3 miles) three to five times a week, the USMS swimmers examined in 2004 postponed the aging process, not only for years but for decades. They found that many of the swimmers delayed this natural decline until the age of 70. Stager, who also competed at the FINA Masters World Championships this summer, is an avid swimmer himself, swimming roughly 3,000 yards per day five times a week. For recreational swimmers, any amount of swimming is beneficial, he said, particularly for the least active. A workout should depend on goals, such as preparing for competition, improving fitness or seeking health and well-being benefits.
"The health and well-being benefits start with a minimal amount of swimming," Stager said. "If you want the fitness effect, you'll need to look at getting your heart rate up and boosting the intensity."
Stager said most of the male and female swimmers examined in spring 2004 reported swimming 3,500 to 5,000 yards five days a week. He received a grant from USMS to get a better grasp of how much swimmers actually swim, using accelerometers to measure how often, how far and how intensely they swim. He received another USMS grant to focus his research on the relationship between swimming, aging and muscle mass and function. The loss of muscle mass is a big concern among the aging, he said, because of its effect on range of motion and quality of life.