Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Wildor Hollmann
Institute of Cardiovascular Research and Sports Medicine at the German Sport University Cologne
Interview vom 30. Juni 2009 mit Dr. Andreas Lauenroth
Many people have recognized the health benefits of physical activity and are active in sports.
Where can one, interested in a sporting activity, find information?
Nowadays you can find information in a variety of adequate books written for the non-expert. Also in addition with the appropriate questions, in the internet. And after all, there are plenty of sports physicians, sports clubs or fitness centers with coaches or qualified sports teachers, whom are not all of good repute but who can always supply valid information.
What would you recommend an elderly person that specifically decided to do something to improve their health?
In the face of increasing life expectancy, we have to separate between a so called third and fourth phase of life. The third phase ranges from 60 to 80 years of age, the fourth from 80 until indefinite and according to those phases, quality and quantity of the demands are measured. Nowadays, people in the third phase of life are often as fit as healthy people at the age of 30 or 40.
Ideally would be a sporting activity of about 30 to 90 minutes,three times a week like walking, hiking, very slow endurance run- so in no case fast running-, swimming, cycling, cross country skiing, climbing stairs. Especially climbing stairs shall be mentioned here. If you climb 180 stairs a day in a slow, comfortable manner, then everything above that causes a training effect, even for a person in the third phase of life. For example, if I climb 400 stairs a day, I have a 15 to 20 minute jogging effect.
Why is the importance of physical activity as a health factor still underestimated ?
To what extent it is underestimated depends of course on the level of information people have. People with little information may underestimate the effect, especially when there is no inclination to physical activity, which in most cases applies to overweight or obese people.
For all others it is a deficit of information. When I think about the 1950s where a lot started with the experimental examination on the question: What health effect has a several days bed rest to the opposite, what health effects does physical training of 3, 5, 10 minutes a day have? That was at a time where most parts of the professors for internal medicine regarded physical activity insignificant to health. For physical fitness of course positive, but for healthy reasons inconsiderable, more or less even negative towards sport. Of course today that has changed tremendously!
Can you describe why physical activeness in old age is so important, especially for the brain?
I wouldn’t necessarily say –especially for the brain- as it is extremely important for the heart, breathing, metabolism, immune system. But, until the year 1985 no one worldwide was aware of the effects of physical activity on the human brain. The reason was because there were no examination techniques, equipment, instruments, that allowed us access to this question. That changed in 1985 when the so called imaging methods were introduced. In connection with the Max-Plank-Institute of Brain Research in Cologne and the Nuclear Research Center in Jülich, we conducted experimental studies,also with these innovative devices, and released worldwide the first publications on the question: What happens to the blood flow of the brain with different doses of bike ergo meter workouts and what happens to the metabolism of the brain? In the process it was discovered- to the surprise of the knowledge at that time- that every physical activity causes significant blood flow increase in the responsible parts of the brain. At the same time, the metabolism changes qualitatively. If you look at those things combined, you will come to the conclusion that through this, preconditions are created for the regeneration of nerve cells in the brain, the growth of number and quality of nerve connections-the so called synapses. The growth of nerve fibres, increase of the so called spines- little thorns, more or less the only places of the human short-term memory- and foremost the new formation of nerve cells in the brain. Until 1998 that was thought impossible and it was a Swedish study group that developed this last finding.
Who should I contact when I want to start a sporting activity? Who are my contact persons?
The most important contact is the sports physician. The sports physician because: When you are older than 40 and haven’t done any form of training for years, you should basically undergo a thorough physical- not only a physical- but also an activity examination, so possibly unknown existing changes will not effect the training negatively. When that is done, you can ask this specific sports physician about the details, the quality, the quantity, the intensity, the number of repeats of the training. In addition to the so called walking- hiking- running training, it should be added: Especially older people from the age 50-60 and above, strength training becomes very important. The power of the musculature and as the cause- the biochemical composition and the number of muscle fibre change dramatically with increasing age. That can not be avoided but the degradation process can be reduced and slowed down through training.
That’s why strength training is important, even though it doesn’t do much to the heart, metabolism and breathing.
Some active older people show an enormous performance. What are the requirements to be fit and active in old age?
One of the top examples at the moment is a 93 year old Canadian who accomplished the marathon time in 5h 20min. As a 93 year old! Some 20 to 30 year old people would be happy to run that distance within that time, without having to give up before. These things depend on 3 factors. First of all a constant, physical training, at least if you are beyond 70 to 80 years old. The training before that is almost insignificant. It matters that, in the last years, training took place in reference to the advanced age one is in. The next aspect is the genetic constitution that the person concerned is bringing along. The genetic constitution for performance in older people has a relevance of 30 to 40%. And the third point is that one keeps a body length related, normal weight. That means that you should not exceed a BMI of about 25 to 26. When these conditions are there, one is ideally ready.
So the sporting biography really only plays a secondary role?
Absolutely secondary! Just the opposite! Strangely enough, former top athletes in different, also endurance sports, that gave up their sport at the age of 30 to 40 are possibly physically inferior at the age of 80 to someone that started training 10 years ago.
How can physical activity influence the daily life of a patient suffering from dementia?
It will definitely come to a sentiment improvement. Every physical activity causes a biochemical change in the brain that is beneficial to sentiment improvement. At the same time, it cannot stop the progress of the disease but intensively work against it. Beyond that, the patient keeps control over his body with regards to coordination, agility and power.
You yourself are 84 years old and are not the least tired. How to you personally keep fit?
Until a little while ago I played Tennis 4 hours a week, always on Mondays and Thursdays from 10pm to midnight, because to this day, I have a 80 hour working week. But after my doubles partner died, it took away the joy.
For about 15 years now, I have divided my office into two separate rooms connected with 30 steps. So 10 to 15 times, sometimes even 20 times, I am forced to change rooms. Therefore I climb 400 to 450 steps a day and as before mentioned, stair climbing has a significant training effect. Since it is a daily routine, whether it is workaday life or Saturday, Sunday- those are like weekdays for me- one can feel super fit. These days I can do whatever I like- no restrictions, no pain, I suffer no pain. I am very aware that I can be thankful for that and that everything can change tomorrow.
Wildor Hollmann is known as a mentor of the sports medicine today. For almost 60 years he has devoted himself to questions of sports medicine.
In 1949 Prof. Hollmann began with experimental research. He earned his doctorate in1954 on the “spiroergometry” (Diagnosis with bicycle ergo meter), which in the following years, was increasingly introduced as a clinical routine examination device.
After his Habilitation in 1961, he was offered a chair in cardiology and sports medicine at the German Sport University in Cologne, which he accepted a year later. In 1958 Hollmann founded the Institute of Cardiovascular Research and Sports Medicine at the Sport University in Cologne and directed the Institute until 1990. Sports Medicine owes Prof. Hollmann the introduction of the bicycle ergo metric Spiroergometry with parallel hemodynamometry as well as the “aerobic-anaerobic barrier”- the most used criteria for performance diagnostic.
His research work includes more than one hundred publications as well as the supervision of about 190 post graduates. In addition he was active in a large number of national and international professional journals and –organisations. For his service as a scientist, Prof. Hollmann was awarded numerous national and international research honours. After receiving the emeritus status in 1990, Hollmann still devotes his life to research and teachings. His main interest is the connection between brain, psyche and physical activity.