Who Says You Can't Win Olympic Gold At Age 42? : Shots - Health News Cyclist Kristin Armstrong, who won Olympic gold at age 42, is one of many athletes saying that high-level sports aren't just for the young. And scientists say exercise reduces aging's toll for us all.
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Olympic Athletes Prove That Older Doesn't Have To Mean Slower

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Olympic Athletes Prove That Older Doesn't Have To Mean Slower

Olympic Athletes Prove That Older Doesn't Have To Mean Slower

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/490111771/490251877" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At the Rio Olympics, some older athletes have turned in exceptional performances. As NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reports, some elite athletes are pushing beyond people's expectations well into their careers.

RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: When Kristin Armstrong pedaled across the finish line to win gold in Rio de Janeiro, her nose was bleeding, and her 5-year-old son was waiting for her.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: That's a gold medal for Kristin Armstrong.

BICHELL: The 42-year-old told reporters that people constantly ask why she keeps competing - her response - because I can.

KRISTIN ARMSTRONG: I think that for so long we've been told that we should be finished at a certain age, and I think that there's a lot of athletes out there that are actually showing that that's not true.

BICHELL: Michael Phelps is still raking in gold medals at 31, and Oksana Chusovitina, a 41-year-old gymnast from Uzbekistan, has been competing in Olympic gymnastics since before most of her competitors were born. Mike Studer is a physical therapist in Oregon who often works with older athletes.

MIKE STUDER: We used to think that individuals over age 50 potentially would be too fragile to work out hard, and research is refuting that.

BICHELL: He says older athletes tend to need longer recovery time and might need tweaks to their training, like running under water rather than on a road. But they have better and better equipment and training techniques at their disposal. Studer, who's 47 years old, is training for an Ironman triathlon and pedaled on a stationary bike while we talked.

STUDER: I've got a 69-year-old patient who in May I helped train to his first marathon.

BICHELL: There are some things that will inevitably decline with age. After 40, skeletal muscle tends to decline. Nerves fire a tiny bit more slowly, and the heart, which is a muscle, loses some power with age.

STUDER: And so therefore the amount of work that we can do in any given minute does reduce with age as well.

BICHELL: But those effects tend to be more pronounced in sedentary people. Athletes can counteract them to some extent with consistent exercise.

WOJTEK CHODZKO-ZAJKO: They can't postpone it forever, but they can impact the degree to which they change.

BICHELL: That's Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko. He's an exercise scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

CHODZKO-ZAJKO: I think we have an incorrect idea about the rate and extent to which physiological aging occurs. It occurs in all of us. It's inescapable and inevitable.

BICHELL: But he says it happens at different rates in different people, especially active ones. And in some cases, he says age can give athletes a crucial advantage - the wisdom that comes from experience. Older athletes have had plenty of time to get to know their bodies and their limits.

CHODZKO-ZAJKO: An older athlete may learn how to train smarter, which helps them to avoid injury. They may show more wisdom in strategy and tactics, and those can actually help them with respect to performance.

BICHELL: So he says don't underestimate the power of experience. And if you're watching the Olympics, do so from a treadmill. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.

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