How Old Is Your Body?

Fitness-wise, a thirty-year-old with big gut may belong in the pre-retirement camp. A top-form amateur athlete, on the other hand, can be compared to the average at 25 years – at 70.

For some years now, scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, led by Professor Ulrik Wisløff, have tried to find a way to measure the physical fitness of a person without relying on expensive sport medicine labs. Load tests are performed in sport medicine centres, which means that they are not available to everyone – at least without waiting in a queue, which can often take many months. Also, such studies involve paying a substantial amount of money, enough to afford a decent pair of sneakers or to go to a sport club for couple of months.

The Norwegians’ study was inspired by the fact that sport medicine inquiries are far from being available to everyone, while physical fitness remains one of the clearest indicators when evaluating cardiovascular health.

The Norwegian researchers used portable labs, complete with the equipment needed to carry out a load test, to examine nearly five thousand individuals, aged 20 to 90. Various data about the guinea pigs was gathered, including height, body mass index, resting heart rate variability and cholesterol levels. Additionally, all participants filled out an in-depth questionnaire about their lifestyles.

A load test followed with the participant running on a treadmill as his/her maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max) was measured. This indicator shows how successful the body is at transporting oxygen to the cells.

Tartu Marathon

Held in February, the traditional Tartu Marathon attracts large crowds of professional and amateur skiers of all ages. Image credit: Jaak Nilson.

Agnes Mägi, attending physician and lecturer at the Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinic of the University of Tartu, is researching hereditary factors that impact the physical abilities of athletes. Estonian top athletes, as well as budding young sportsmen and amateurs, visit her cabinet for thorough sport-related inquiries.

According to Mägi, VO2 max offers information about the cardiovascular system’s potential ability for effort in the context of physical load. “The ability has a lot to do with heredity, as up to 50 per cent of it is attributed to genes”, she said. Still, wise training can increase oxygen uptake ability.

Many previous studies have shown that people with better oxygen uptake ability tend to live longer. This even applies to elderly and overweight people. Basically, the indicator can tell the age of a person, based on the health or cardiovascular system.

It turns out that the age written in a passport and physical age can differ in a substantial way. Based solely on VO2 max, a top-form seventy-year-old person with the indicator matching those half a century younger has the body of a twenty-year-old. At the same time, a severely overweight man of 30 who doesn’t move around a lot can belong among older people when it comes to this quality.

The Norwegians have figured out a way to evaluate VO2 max without a treadmill and expensive lab technology. After analysing the results of measurements that were performed in the lab on five thousand individuals, they found a formula with six variables: waist measurements, resting heart rate variability, training frequency and intensity, age, and sex. Based on these indices, the VO2 max of a person can be calculated quite precisely, the scientists claimed in their article that was published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise journal.

An online calculator has been built, using results of the study, which allows anyone to get an idea of his or her VO2 max without taking a trip to the nearest sport medicine centre.

To measure resting heart rate variability, one has to sit still for ten minutes and then check the heart rate, using either a heart rate monitor watch or manually measuring the pulse of the wrist. The waist measurements should be taken at belly-button height.

Agnes Mägi emphasises that the Norwegians’ formula should be well suited to amateurs who exercise a couple of times per week. “The online calculator says nothing about top athletes who have their conditions measured yearly with a loading test”, she said. According to Mägi, the calculator also has no use for those suffering from cardiovascular diseases whose health status, as well as efficiency of treatment, is also evaluated using a loading test. “As I pointed out, it works on healthy amateur athletes”, she said.

Additionally, such an online calculator is useless for determining aerobic and anaerobic thresholds for the pulse. By knowing these indices, one can plan his or her training so that the desired effect is achieved without overloading the body.

Wisløff says that we can all still do something to keep the body younger – one simply has to move around more. Of course, the number in the passport stays the same, but better physical form gives quite trustworthy information about current health status and even allows some predictions to be made.

Figure out your VO2 max using the online calculator created by the Norwegian scientists.

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