With increasing interest in health and wellbeing, the number of master athletes continues to increase. The characteristics of master athletes seem to indicate a net benefit of lifelong physical activity.
What are master athletes?
“Master” is a nice word to refer to older athletes. The actual cut-off date depends on the sport (and, in some cases, on the country) but in general anyone 35 years or over competing in sporting events can be considered a master athlete.
Characteristics of master athletes
Maximal aerobic capacity is measured using VO2max. Even though this declines with age, it is important to note that master athletes retain more aerobic capacity than sedentary counterparts, and that it is higher in master athletes who train with high intensity (1).
Muscle mass, strength and function
The loss of muscle mass and function is known as sarcopenia. While it is common among elderly individuals, especially those living in aged care facilities. Older individuals are also more likely to suffer from multiple health conditions and thus, take several medications (2).
Fien and colleagues analysed a medium sample of master athletes and found that they had better overall health than the general population in the same age group as evidenced by less chronic health conditions and prescribed medications (2).
Also compared to the general population, master athletes had lower weight and BMI. Muscle strength measured by handgrip strength declined with age but muscle function measured by gait speed did not. However, none of the master athletes could be considered sarcopenic (2).
Muscle fibres and fuel utilisation
A small study by Dubé et al. compared muscle fibres and substrate utilisation between adult younger (up to 39 years old) and older (60-75 years old) endurance athletes. They found that body composition (i.e. FM vs FFM) did not differ between the groups (3).
However, the older athletes had more type I (“slow”) muscle fibres and lower type IIa (“fast”) muscle fibres. Their muscle fibres had also more intra-muscular triglyceride content and lower glycogen content, indicating more capacity to use fatty acids instead of glucose for fuel. This also confirms, not surprisingly, that younger athletes are more able to exercise at higher intensities (3).
Besides body composition, scientists also found similar metabolic flexibility and insulin sensitivity in the older athletes when compared to the younger ones, suggesting that continuing endurance exercise at older ages is beneficial for metabolic health (3).
The combination of resistance exercise and vitamin D3 supplements seems to be more effective in increasing muscle strength and power (4).
On average, master athletes have lower BMI than same age individuals in the general population. This trend seems to be more pronounced in females than males. While a lower BMI can be indicative of better body composition, some studies have found BMIs in the overweight category (e.g. >25 kg/m2 in one study, 26.4 kg/m2 in another) are associated with reduced risk of mortality. However, in active populations such as master athletes, a lower BMI is accompanied by lower morbidities (5).
It is common knowledge that bone mass decreases with age, and that this is why older individuals are more susceptible to fractures. It is also known that exercise (in addition to some nutrients such as protein, calcium and vitamin D) are important for bone health. More specifically, power-based exercise is more efficient than endurance-based exercise and male athletes tend to preserve muscle mass than female ones (6).
Total energy expenditure (TEE, i.e. total energy burnt) can be calculated as the sum of resting energy expenditure (REE) + energy expenditure due to physical activity. REE accounts for 60-70% of TEE and 60-70% of REE is determined by the fat-free mass (FFM) content. REE declines with age, mainly due to loss of muscle mass (7).
The equations dietitians use to estimate energy requirements are based on measurements done on samples of people. In some cases, equations are based on young individuals who may or may not be physically active (side note: this is often because university students are the easiest subjects to conduct studies on). As a consequence, there are equations that are more appropriate than others when wanting to estimate the energy requirements of master athletes. Frings-Meuthen et al. conducted a study testing different equations versus measured energy expenditure and found that De Lorenzo equation is the most accurate:
REE = -857 + 9 x bodyweight (kg) + 11 x height (cm)
Note that, unlike other equations, this one doesn’t take into account age nor sex. Interestingly, it was found to be the most accurate for both men and women within a wide range of ages (35 to 84 years old). The sample size was not huge, but the study still provides valuable insights not only for identifying a better equation to use in this population but also to suggest that both REE and FFM are reasonably conserved in master athletes (7).
Summary and recommendations
Observational and intervention studies indicate that master have better body composition, muscle strength and function, metabolic and general health than sedentary counterparts. These benefits are likely to apply to physically active older individuals, not just those participating in sports competitions.
- Gries KJ, Raue U, Perkins RK, Lavin KM, Overstreet BS, D’Acquisto LJ, et al. Cardiovascular and skeletal muscle health with lifelong exercise. J Appl Physiol. 2018 Nov;125(5):1636–45.
- Fien S, Climstein M, Quilter C, Buckley G, Henwood T, Grigg J, et al. Anthropometric, physical function and general health markers of Masters athletes: a cross-sectional study. PeerJ. 2017;5:e3768.
- Dubé JJ, Broskey NT, Despines AA, Stefanovic-Racic M, Toledo FGS, Goodpaster BH, et al. Muscle Characteristics and Substrate Energetics in Lifelong Endurance Athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016 Mar;48(3):472–80.
- Antoniak AE, Greig CA. The effect of combined resistance exercise training and vitamin D(3) supplementation on musculoskeletal health and function in older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open. 2017/07/22. 2017;7(7):e014619.
- Walsh J, Heazlewood IT, Climstein M. Body Mass Index in Master Athletes: Review of the Literature. J lifestyle Med. 2018 Jul;8(2):79–98.
- Ireland A, Mittag U, Degens H, Felsenberg D, Ferretti JL, Heinonen A, et al. Greater maintenance of bone mineral content in male than female athletes and in sprinting and jumping than endurance athletes: a longitudinal study of bone strength in elite masters athletes. Arch Osteoporos. 2020 Jun;15(1):87.
- Frings-Meuthen P, Henkel S, Boschmann M, Chilibeck PD, Alvero Cruz JR, Hoffmann F, et al. Resting Energy Expenditure of Master Athletes: Accuracy of Predictive Equations and Primary Determinants. Front Physiol. 2021;12:641455.