Exercise For Your Life Stage Chapter 6

Top of Their Game

What can we learn from elite athletes? Here is a closer look at the differences between an average fit, healthy person and one who is trained for top-level competition.


Built for Performance

Not every beautiful physical specimen is an elite athlete. But every elite athlete has built an impressive body for maximum performance in his or her sport. Speed skaters have whopping thigh muscles, with the potential to power them across the ice. Gymnasts have long, supple muscles, and very little body fat, which gives them the right combination of strength, speed, flexibility and grace. And pro football defensive linemen have the broad shoulders and bulk they need to stop running backs in their tracks. Many top athletes have a genetic advantage. Those who excel in sports requiring speed and power tend to have more fast-twitch muscle fibers, which provide a quick burst of energy during anaerobic activity. The proportion of fast-twitch fibers to slow-twitch fibers is inherited, although training can build fast-twitch fibers up and make them work more efficiently. READ MORE

Besides strong muscles, a pro athlete's training regimen also builds stronger, denser bones. In sports requiring aerobic stamina, athletes build up literally miles of additional blood vessels to accommodate their increased blood volume. This process, called angiogenesis, is stimulated when the body senses there is too little oxygen in the muscle fibers. “This low level of oxygen is called hypoxia,” says Thomas H. Adair, PhD, professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “The hypoxic muscle cells release a power growth factor called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). Interestingly, in humans, a single bout of exercise can increase VEGF levels in the muscles. However, repeated bouts of exercise are required to stimulate angiogenesis to a significant extent in both humans and laboratory animals.” In one of Dr. Adair's research studies, rodents exercised intensively, and a robust growth of capillaries was observed. Humans can grow a more efficient vessel system with moderate effort. “Aerobic exercise three or more times per week is likely to stimulate significant angiogenesis, if the exercise is intensive,” says Adair. Angiogenesis results in greater oxygen capacity, creating a bigger power source for your workout. LESS


Trained Brain

Some of the differences between elite athletes and humble civilians are not outwardly visible. Becoming an expert at a physical sport or task can also rewire your brain, making it respond more quickly to certain stimuli. A research group in Italy conducted a study of the reactions to visual stimuli among accomplished pro basketball players. While watching a ballgame, the players could tell whether a free-throw would reach a basket more quickly and accurately than journalists and coaches who watch games all the time, and novice fans. In fact, the players could often make the right prediction before the ball left a shooter's hand, just by following the physical cues as a player set up to shoot. Pro players predicted which shots would score with 75 percent accuracy, while the other observers had about 40 percent accuracy. READ MORE

Athletes spend so much time coordinating their movements with their external environment, that such sensory advantages aren't completely surprising. A 2011 study from the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences compared the actual brain structure of a group of elite divers with a group of subjects who were not pro athletes nor in top physical condition. Both groups were in the same age range and had the same amount of education. Research leader Jing Luo says that MRI scans of the diver's brains revealed that areas of the brain linked to learning and processing movement were denser than those areas were in the non-athletes. These include the left superior temporal sulcus, the right orbitofrontal cortex and the right parahippocampal gyrus--all on the outer layers of the brain. Additionally, the parahippocampal gyrus region was denser in direct proportion to each diver's years of experience, suggesting that this area of the brain continues to build the longer the athlete keeps working. LESS


The Flip Side

While top athletes' combination of genetic luck, developed skill and focused motivation propel them to great achievements, they are not always as fortunate during their career's end. Those who play contact sports such as football and hockey are at higher risk of post-career knee and hip osteoarthritis. A 2011 Swedish study published in the American Journal of Sports medicine found that hockey players had triple the risk of osteoarthritis compared to non-athlete men, and soccer and handball players faced double the risk. Also, evidence is piling up that football and hockey players, as well as boxers, who have suffered concussions or repeated head trauma on the playing field may be accruing devastating brain damage over time. Professional leagues are rethinking their rules and safety equipment in light of this dire threat. READ MORE

Keeping fit in later years requires continuing exercise. Angiogenesis and muscle hypertrophy take a lot of upkeep! “The use-it-or-lose-it concept applies to capillaries, as well as just about everything else in physiology,” says Dr. Thomas Adair. “We, and others, have shown that muscles which become sedentary lose their capillaries.” Additionally, athletes who have had to make drastic alterations in their diet to build their competition-ready body often have a hard time adjusting to normal diet and exercise routines after retirement. Some even develop eating disorders. LESS

theVisualMD Wishes to Thank our Scientific Collaborators:

The material on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Consult a licensed medical professional for the diagnosis and treatment of all medical conditions and before starting a new diet or exercise program. If you have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.