Space | 12. September 2018 | posted by Friederike Wütscher

Study on ageing athletes at the World Championships in Málaga – Top results in the competitions and the study

Credit: DLR
Buoyant mood during the calf ultrasound: a participant from the United States takes part in the MAFS study

The first week of the World Master Track & Field Championships in Málaga has come to an end and a few gold, silver and bronze medals have been awarded. Some of the athletes proudly bring their medals to the examinations and, despite the intense heat in the south of Spain, show the same level of focus and commitment in the MAFS18 study. All of them are determined to score top results in the examination of how regular exercise affects health.##markend##

Credit: DLR
Women's 100-metre race in the 40-44 age group

The team has prepared several stations with different examination focuses to obtain the data on muscles, body composition, heart, circulation, metabolism and life circumstances that is relevant for the MAFS study. The first step is to record the participants’s data, explain the study, weigh and and measure them.

Credit: DLR
The examinations include measuring and weighing the participants; here a participant from Ireland


Due to the time constraints, not all of the athletes participating in the study complete every station. Overall, the examinations last two to three hours, and not everyone can accommodate this in the competition schedule. So they only do some of the stations. The first station on this morning’s agenda is to measure the resting metabolic rate. This is followed by the bioimpedance analysis and a detailed questionnaire that is filled out using a tablet PC. Then come a number of leap tests, a calf muscle ultrasound and an ultrasound examination of the heart.


Calf muscle ultrasound station – Sarah Michély, doctoral candidate for medicine, Philipp Rauschendorfer, student assistant, DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine

The station run by Sarah and Philipp is the centrepiece of the MAFS18 study, where data is obtained for comparison with the findings of the space experiment Sarcolab-3. MAFS18 examines the effects of age and training level to acquire a better grasp of changes in fascicle dynamics among astronauts. The world championships for ageing athletes offer an ideal opportunity.

Credit: DLR

The first step of the test is to adjust the screws until all of the measuring points fit the participants and their legs like a glove, which takes a while. Sarah and Philipp disappear repeatedly beneath the apparatus until everything is set up correctly. Then it begins: they examine the mechanical changes that take place in the muscle when it is contracted. The two investigators give the participants plenty of verbal of encouragement. They are regularly astonished when they hear the participants' reports from the competition and notice the athletes' strength during the examinations.

Philipp is currently working on his master's thesis at the University of Regensburg, which investigates the quantification of intramuscular connective tissue by means of ultrasound. Sarah is writing her doctoral thesis in medicine on the effects of age on muscular contraction, supervised by Jörn Rittweger at DLR. She is conducting the examinations as part of her thesis preparation. The test involves an ultrasound examination of the calf muscles to analyse the sequences in muscle mechanics during contraction: the muscle activity, movement angle of the upper ankle and the strength of the calf muscles are investigated, in which ultrasound is used as an optical reference.

Credit: DLR
'Calf Muscle Ultrasound' team in the MAFS study

Sarah and Philipp are especially interested in the differences in the muscles, depending on the age groups of the athletes (from 35 to 100), as well as the difference between the individual sporting disciplines, between men and women and with regard to the individual sporting histories. Some of the athletes only took up their disciplines for the world championships in track and field a few years ago, while others have been involved in the sport their entire lives. Many of them switched discipline as they grew older as a means of adjusting to their physical changes. Sarah and Philipp find working with their participants fascinating: "Their friendliness and personal histories are simply amazing. They have so many interesting stories to tell, are extremely engaging and keen to learn what they could do better. We are particularly delighted to note how fun-loving and positive they are, no matter how many hard knocks they have experienced in life."

Credit: DLR
A participant from Finland during the calf ultrasound examination

Explaining the various sets of movements to athletes from so many different nations is challenging at this station as well, but it is necessary in order to make sure everything runs smoothly. "Somehow we always manage," says Philipp. Sarah and Philipp agree completely: "Every evening we look forward to the next batch of participants who will visit us in the morning, for both the measurements and data, as well as the personal contact!"


Resting metabolic rate station – Natia Rittweger and Irmtrud Schrage-Knoll, DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine

Tucked away in the rear section of the MASF room, screened off from the other areas by partition walls, this station uses indirect calorimetry to determine the resting metabolic rate by measuring oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide emission. For this purpose, the participants lie quietly beneath a canopy hood for 30 minutes. The examination is explained to two participants resting on recliners, and they are prepared for the tests at the same time. During measurement, Natia and Irmi make sure that the participants stay relaxed, but without falling asleep, as the resting metabolic rate drops during sleep, which would distort the findings of the test. The athletes occasionally have trouble staying awake at this station, as their sometimes advanced age, the rigours of the competition and the high Spanish temperatures can be quite a burden. The investigators wake them gently if they do happen to nod off. Afterwards they are served breakfast by the team to be fortified for the day, which they are very happy to accept.

Credit: DLR
Two participants beneath the canopy hood

Bioimpedance station – Mieszko Brikis, medical student and DLR intern

The bioimpedance station run by medical student Mieszko, currently an intern at DLR, uses body composition analysis to measure the various fractions contained in the skeletal muscle mass. Mieszko explains to the participant that the device takes the varying conductivity of muscle and fat to determine body fat and skeletal muscle mass, as well as to identify their respective contributions to overall bodyweight. State-of-the-art devices obtain more precise values for the various extremities (right/left arm, torso, right/left leg).

Credit: DLR
A participant from Switzerland at the bioimpedance station

Among other things, the findings are used to set benchmark values for ageing athletes.

Mieszko is thrilled by his work with the athletes: "Daily contact with the athletes from different age groups and sporting disciplines have prompted me to consider a new specialisation once I have finished my studies. Medical students rarely get the chance to take part in a field study like MAFS here in Málaga. I am really thankful for this opportunity and it is giving me far more than just the results of my examinations."

Questionnaire station – Savannah Wooten and Sten Stray-Gundersen, University of Texas

The colleagues from Texas use detailed questionnaires to learn more about the personal histories and life circumstances of the athletes, as well as how these factors influence their training and performance. The scientists gladly provide assistance in operating the tablets and willingly answer the numerous questions.

Credit: DLR
Savannah from the MAFS team with a German participant

Savannah Wooten, Ph.D. Student, Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory, University of Texas at Austin, USA: "It is incredible to work with people from all over the world. There is a genuine sense of excitement that the participants have. They want to know more about their bodies and health status and it is great to be able to provide them with that knowledge. The questionnaires that the participants receive allow them to gain self-awareness and provoke thoughts about how exercise, diet, sleep, and mood impact their performance."

Sten Stray-Gundersen, Masters Student, Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory, University of Texas at Austin, USA: "One of the most incredible characteristics that many of these Masters athletes shared was their perspective on life. During the questionnaires, I found that almost all of the participants had an exceptionally positive outlook on their past experiences and current life situation. Most, if not all of the participants felt blessed to be able to compete and represent their country in these Masters Championships."

Credit: DLR
MAFS team member Sten and the participant Dorothee

Vertical leap and hop test station – Edwin Mulder, DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine

The athletes are asked to prove their physical prowess at this station, so they receive loud and frequent encouragement from Edwin Mulder: his shouts of "hep, hep, hep" during the vertical leaps, which are performed from a standing position, motivate the participants to push their boundaries. The participants are required to keep their hands resting on their hips to prevent any countermovement with the arms.

Credit: DLR
Supervised leaps: the participants jump as high as they can three times

The aim is for the athletes to jump as high as they can. Afterwards they hop up and down on one leg, jumping from the ankle and remaining as stiff as possible. The leaps are repeated three times, and only the best result counts. Edwin explains: "Most of the athletes jump higher than untrained people, but the quality of vertical leaps and one-legged hops tends to differ.

Interestingly, the one-legged hops do not reveal any difference between left and right. All of the participants find the test strenuous, but they really make an effort as it appeals to their ambition. We have a lot of fun together!"

Echocardiography and pulse wave analysis station – Fabian Hoffmann and Stefan Möstl, DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine

It is well known that sport keeps the cardiovascular system young. At this station, we want to find out whether lifelong sport into an advanced age can slow down the ageing process itself and how this process reveals itself in the heart. To do this, we use ultrasound to perform a thorough examination of the athletes' hearts to determine the dimensions and also the functions: the size, wall thickness and ventricular volume are all measured, as well as whether the valves shut properly.

Credit: DLR
Echocardiography on a participant from the United States

The flow rate and movement sequences of the heart muscle are also determined. Pulse wave analysis examines vascular stiffness as well. Stefan Möstl and Fabian Hoffmann explain: "The combined information obtained from both parts of the examination gives us a very precise image of the athletes' cardiovascular system. Data from the two examinations is recorded synchronously. The blood pressure measurement device for the pulse wave analysis applies an innovative method, and our findings from the MAFS study will contribute to its improvement. One of these devices will be sent to the International Space Station in the next few weeks to conduct similar tests on the cosmonauts."

The athletes are delighted when Fabian and Stefan explain to them how their hearts work: "The participants are very thankful for this examination opportunity, as they do not always have the chance to receive this kind of functional analysis. They cooperate willingly and are extremely impressed to see their own hearts live on the display."

Credit: DLR
Exciting views, not just for the scientists: the participants were equally fascinated to see their hearts on the screen

About the author

Friederike Wütscher is responsible for public relations at the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine. She presents the Institute’s diverse areas of work and research topics to the outside world. to authorpage

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