Hard hitting: Serena Williams in action. Photograph: Sipa USA/Rex/Shutterstock
So pummelling yourself to death for hours on end in the gym need not be the answer. Relatively brief periods of high-intensity interval training, which make allowances for busy work and family lives, can help keep us young, or at least higher functioning older people.
Even Federer is a spring chicken compared with athletes performing well into their forties. British runner Jo Pavey is a home-grown example of increasing longevity in sport. The Devon-based athlete will be just shy of her 45th birthday in August, yet age has not dulled her love of competition. Veteran of five Olympic Games, with two children to care for, she is nevertheless preparing for the 10,000m in that month’s European Athletics Championships in Berlin. In 2014, she won gold in the same event, when she was about to turn 41, becoming the oldest European champion in history. Pavey knows how to pace herself on and off the track, missing this year’s Commonwealth Games in Australia to ensure freshness in the summer. If anyone beats the linear model for ageing, it is her.
“There’s always a next thing to aim for, and something to look forward to,” she says. “The thing is that you get some years when you feel older but when things are going wrong you can be 26 and feel old! You get years when you feel old and others when you feel young again.”
Other female athletes have maintained elite performance into their 40s, such as 42-year-old Uzbek gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, who hopes to compete in her eighth Olympics in 2020. And American road cyclist Kristin Armstrong, 44, who came home with a gold from the time trial in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, her third in that event.
And when age takes its toll, there is always the option of medical science. For example, we are only a decade away from being able to 3D-print replacement cartilage – something Andy Murray could do with. Cartilage is particularly affected by age – about a quarter of all adults over 55 show signs of knee osteoarthritis, the inflammation that occurs when cartilage breaks down.
Nirav Pandya, an orthopaedic surgeon at the University of California at San Francisco, says: “In the young kid you have such good healing potential. But take that person who may have had a couple of injuries in their knee when they played college sports, and now they’re 35 or 40 and it’s just bothering them. The answer before was, ‘Just stop.’ Now, it may be, ‘Let’s grow some cartilage in this area. Let’s see if we can get your body back to when you were 20 through some of the cell and molecular stuff we are doing.’”
In Silicon Valley, where longevity is an obsession, the technological solution is appealing. Tech billionaires are using their wealth to put some distance between themselves and the Grim Reaper. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the cofounders of Google, have launched a company called Calico (California Life Company) with the mission to “harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan”.
But death always enjoys the upper hand. Research suggests 120 is the absolute upper limit for the durability of the human frame, no matter what we do in the gym. Cell mutation over time is what does us in. Judith Campisi, a professor of biogerontology at the Buck Institute in the US, explains that the more biologically complex an organism, the harder it is to extend its life. We can keep roundworms alive for 10 times their normal lifespan. But humans? No.
“Maybe evolution is trying to tell us something,” she says. Most of us need not worry about life at 120, or even 90. Our sedentary lifestyle helps ensure that many of us will depart this earth well before. Public Health England (PHE) says some six million people between 40 and 60 in England are endangering their health by not taking so much as a brisk walk for 10 minutes once a month. But there is always the chance to change. One of the benefits of being a couch potato in youth and early middle-age is the lack of stress damage accrued by serious athletes that can leave some of them old before their time.
“By walking just 10 continuous minutes at a brisk pace every day, an individual can reduce their risk of early death by 15%,” says Professor Muir Gray, adviser to PHE. “They can also prevent or delay the onset of disability and further reduce their risk of serious health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, dementia and some cancers.” Emma Stevenson, professor of sport and exercise at Newcastle University’s Institute for Ageing, says it is all about functionality – living well, not just longer. “Age is not a reason not to be doing things,” she says. “That way, we age more quickly. We may be living longer but without good nutrition and exercise we lose functionality – like simply being able to get out of a chair – and that is not good quality of life.”
How to get fit for life
1. Ramp up exercise gradually, preparing your body for the demands you wish to place on it. Walking is a great way to start. Just 10 continuous minutes at a brisk pace every day can reduce the risk of early death by 15%.
2. Aim for 10 or 20 minutes a week of high-intensity exercise – getting your heart rate up to at least 80% of its maximum. This means getting to the point where it feels unpleasant (sweating, raised heart rate, out of breath) and that you can’t keep it up for long.
3. High-intensity interval exercise should be followed by unloading activities, such as stretching and massage. Time-pressured people are tempted to extend exercise during a visit to the gym and skip stretching. Bad idea.
4. Keep to a 20:80 ratio for high:low intensity exercise. Also aim for some strength training (push-ups, squats, resistance bands) to build muscle and help to prevent later-life injuries, like those to the hip.
5. Avoid fads and eat a generally healthy diet, with plenty of vegetables and whole grains. Protein builds muscle and creatine powder in a glass of milk helps build and maintain muscle. Bone broth is good.
Play On: How to Get Better with Age by Jeff Bercovici is published by Penguin Life on 3 May at £14.99. To order a copy for £12.74, go to guardianbookshop.com
This article was amended on 2 May 2018, to change the spelling of Professor Muir Gray’s name.