Getting in Shape, Falling Out of Shape


By Dr. Jessica Seaton


Most of us have experienced how, the older we get, it seemingly takes longer to get back into shape after a long lay-off. It also feels that if we stop exercising, we get more out of shape quicker than we did when we were younger. Is this all in our minds? Or is it physiological?


A few studies in recent issues of Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise touch on aging and exercise. One study looked at both young (age range 20 – 30 years) and older (age range 65 – 75 years) men and women. These were individuals who had not exercised in the past six months. Under very controlled circumstances, the individuals in the study performed seated leg extensions on one leg (using the other leg as the control) three times per week for nine weeks. At the end of nine weeks their one repetition maximum (1 RM) was measured and compared to their 1 RM prior to training. The percentage gain in muscle strength showed no statistical differences between the men and the women. However the younger subjects did show greater increases in 1 RM than the older subjects (34% vs 28%). The study then continued with a detraining segment: the subjects stopped their exercise program and had their 1 RM measured after 12 weeks and then again after 31 weeks. Interestingly enough, there were no differences between men and women or between older and younger subjects at 12 weeks. However, by 31 weeks the older subjects did demonstrate greater loss of 1 RM than the younger subjects. The total loss after 31 weeks for the younger subjects was 8% compared to 14% for the older subjects.


Does this translate to swimming? The study doesn’t address endurance, nor technique (as seated leg extensions do not have the technique demands that swimming does). However it does speak to brute strength, which is an important component of power. Ultimately this study confirms our experience: we lose some power when we’re out of the water for three months, and we lose a lot more power (especially the older swimmers compared to the younger ones) when we’re out of the water for seven or more months.


Jessica Seaton, D.C. is a chiropractic orthopedist in private practice in West Los Angeles. She has been a member of USMS’s Sports Medicine Committee and chairperson of SPMA’s Sports Medicine and Fitness Committee for many years. She has been swimming with West Hollywood Aquatics for over ten years and can be reached at (310) 470-0282 or