Professional athletes may not think much about their childhood exploits when it comes to performance and achievements. However, new research suggests that young children and certain types of athletes might have a lot more in common than what one would think, specifically in terms of recovery from intensive forms of exercise.
In a new study that was extensively cited by Newsweek, a multinational team of researchers separated a group of participants into three groups — 12 boys ranging in age from eight to 12 who didn’t undergo regular athletic training, 13 adult endurance athletes at the national competition level, and 12 “unfit” adults. All 37 participants were asked to perform cycling tests, then were tested for different metrics, including their heart rate, blood oxygen levels, and acidosis and lactate levels, the latter of which are both associated with muscle tiredness. The researchers gathered this data to find out whether the group of young boys used aerobic or anaerobic metabolism when exercising.
All in all, the group of children did better than the unfit adults in all of the researchers’ tests, with the children’s group also beating out the pro athletes’ group in terms of recovery from exercise. This was despite the observation that children generally get tired faster than adults do because their cardiovascular systems are still underdeveloped, and because their movements are less efficient due to their smaller frames.
“This new study is significant because we found that the children used more of their aerobic metabolism and were therefore less tired during the high-intensity physical activities than adults,” observed Universite Clermont Auvergne associate professor and study co-author Sebastien Ratel, in a statement quoted by Newsweek.
“Children also recovered very quickly, even faster than the well-trained adult endurance athletes, as demonstrated by their faster heart rate recovery and ability to better remove lactate, a metabolic byproduct contributing to muscle fatigue.”
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Although it was interesting to see children do better than adult athletes when it came to recovery from intensive exercise, BGR noted that there might be an explanation for this unusual observation. As children are not as physically strong as adults, that also means they aren’t producing as much power with their muscles as adults would normally do. However, the researchers also pointed out that it remains unknown whether the progressive decline in muscle fitness has an effect on a person’s general health as they age.
“With the rise in diseases related to physical inactivity, it is helpful to understand the physiological changes with growth that might contribute to the risk of disease,” said Ratel.
As the findings suggest that aerobic fitness at the muscle level rapidly decreases as children mature into adults, Ratel explained that future studies might look at how changes at the muscle level are related to the increased risk of developing certain diseases, such as diabetes. For the meantime, however, the study’s results could serve as a motivational tool for parents to encourage their children to exercise and maintain muscle fitness, he added.
Given the many headlines that interpreted the new study as suggesting that children are fitter than adults, including professional athletes, St. Mary’s University (London) sport and exercise scientist Paul Hough told Newsweek that the “absolute power outputs” generated by pro athletes and “unfit” adults are greater than those generated by young children. Hough, who did not take part in the study, added that it’s still hard to establish a link between a person’s recovery profile and their risk of developing chronic illnesses, due to the many variables that could lead to diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions.