Impaired skeletal muscle efficiency potentially contributes to the age-related decline in exercise capacity and may explain the altered haemodynamic response to exercise in the elderly. Thus we examined whether (i) the ATP cost of contraction increases with age, and (ii) this results in altered convective O2 delivery to maintain microvascular oxygenation in the calf muscle. To this aim, we used an integrative experimental approach combining 31P-MRS (magnetic resonance spectroscopy), Doppler ultrasound imaging and NIRS (near-IR spectroscopy) during dynamic plantar flexion exercise at 40% of WRmax (maximal power output) in 20 healthy young and 20 older subjects matched for physical activity. The ATP cost of contraction was significantly higher in the old (7.2±4.1 mM/min per W) compared with the young (2.4±1.9 mM/min per W; P<0.05) and this was only significantly correlated with the plantar flexion WRmax value in the old subjects (r=−0.52; P<0.05). Even when differences in power output were taken into account, end-exercise blood flow (old, 259±168 ml/min per W and young, 134±40 ml/min per W; P<0.05) and convective O2 delivery (old, 0.048±0.031 l/min per W and young, 0.026±0.008 l/min per W; P<0.05) were greater in the old in comparison with the young subjects. In contrast, the NIRS oxyhaemoglobin, deoxyhaemoglobin and microvascular oxygenation indices were not significantly different between the groups (P>0.05). Therefore the present study reveals that, although the peripheral haemodynamic responses to plantar flexion exercise appear to be appropriate, the elevated energy cost of contraction and associated reduction in the WRmax value in this muscle group may play a role in limiting exercise capacity with age.

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