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Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 21:20 EDT

Can Middle-Aged Mortals Achieve Olympic Fitness?

July 14, 2008

By Nanci Hellmich

The chiseled body of 41-year-old Olympic swimmer Dara Torres was all the talk of people watching the U.S. Olympic trials.

And it prompted some middle-aged people to think about their own physical condition and wonder whether mere mortals can achieve that high level of fitness and end up looking like Torres.

“Many people in their 40s could look like her, but they’d have to train a ridiculous number of hours, and most people in the U.S. would have to lose a lot of weight,” says Timothy Church, director of preventive medicine research at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge and co-author of the exercise book Move Yourself.

“It would have to be your mission in life. You’d have to do a minimum of two hours of hard, hard training a day, but probably more like four hours a day. And you’d have to really reduce how much you’d eat. You can build muscle, but if it’s covered in fat, you can’t see it.”

That would be hard for people who juggle a job, family and other responsibilities, he says.

Genetics and age play a big role in how difficult it would be to achieve a high level of fitness, he says. It’s much easier to attain if you have great genes, are in your 20s, naturally have a lot of muscle and have never gained extra weight.

That’s true, says Miriam Nelson, director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University in Boston and co-author of Strong Women Stay Young.

If you want to be a competitive athlete, you’ll be training most of the day, she says. And you have to make sure you are doing it correctly so you don’t hurt yourself.

Torres, who has a 2-year-old daughter, does one intense swim workout a day. She also does weight training and dry-land workouts. She has been fit for years, and she has a team that includes two “stretchers” who travel with her, a strength coach and a massage therapist.

Her head coach, Michael Lohberg, says most people may not be able to look like her, “but I really do think with proper nutrition and proper training, people can look very, very fit.”

Americans should be inspired by Torres to increase their strength, aerobic fitness and flexibility, says orthopedic surgeon Angela D. Smith, former president of the American College of Sports Medicine and a National Masters Figure Skating medalist.

Everyone, especially people who have never been very active, must give their bodies time to adapt to a fitness program, she says. “Bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons have to be strengthened gradually by slowly increasing the length and intensity of the workouts.”

People can work with what they have and improve how they look and feel, Smith says. Researchers believe muscle mass plateaus in your mid-40s and then slowly declines unless you do something to preserve it.

Studies show that men ages 50 to 70 who are doing some weight training don’t lose any strength or muscle, Nelson says. And there is research that shows women 50 to 70 can gain muscle if they start lifting weights.

“We don’t have the full picture yet, but data are emerging that suggest that you can preserve much of your strength and fitness well into your 60s and beyond if you work hard enough at it,” Nelson says.

Church used to train more than 20 hours a week for Ironman triathlons, which involve swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running a marathon of 26.2 miles in one day.

“When you are super-fit, you just feel invincible. There is no way I could train like that now with a family, and quite frankly I really no longer want to,” says Church, who has two young children.

These days he jogs 30 to 35 minutes two to three days a week. On weekends, he and his wife put their children in a jogger and go out for a fast walk/jog for an hour or more.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to achieve a high fitness level, remember there are great health benefits with moderate amounts of activity, he says. “Thirty minutes a day of walking promotes healthier, happier aging.”<>