When 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres recently qualified for the Olympic Games in Beijing, there were likely more than a few kindred souls who raised a glass in her honor. Any one of the Red Sox trio of 40-something pitchers -- Mike Timlin (42), Tim Wakefield (41) or Curt Schilling (41) could certainly relate -- though the extent of Schilling's toast would be limited by his shoulder surgery. Chris Chelios, the 46-year-old Detroit Red Wings defenseman, might have raised a cup instead. That would be the Stanley Cup he and his teammates just won.

They are all exceptional athletes, but exceptions to the rule? Perhaps not as much as you might think, according to Dr. Lewis Lipsitz, chief of the Gerontology Division at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and vice president for Academic Medicine at Hebrew SeniorLife.

"When it comes to physical or athletic prime, there is no one age that fits all," Lipsitz said. "Yes, it is unusual to have 40-year-olds competing at the top of their game, but a high level of physical performance is achievable at almost any age. It just takes a lot of hard work."

While I wasn't about to squeeze into my old Speedo and jump into the pool, I was curious about the connection between age and performance. After all, when napping becomes a category we add to our personal bests, doesn't that tell us something?

"In my view, aging has a relatively small effect on a body's performance and function," Lipsitz said. "Something on the order of one-half of one percent per year. Physical decline is not an inevitable consequence of aging. Most muscle loss in adults is due to a sedentary lifestyle. We need to 'use it or lose it.'"

Lipsitz says the good news is that a lot of the aches and pains we attribute to aging are preventable. Even relatively small changes in behavior can pay big dividends at almost every age. He has seen examples of people well into their 70s and 80s who have added muscle mass by initiating a weight-training program.

"Our bodies are built with more capacity than we need," he said. "We have considerable reserve so that when we need to run away from danger, for instance, our hearts can beat faster and our muscles move quicker. With regular exercise, we can raise that reserve and maximize the capacity of our organ systems."

Before you set your sights on the 2012 Games in London, you might want to keep this in mind. Lipsitz suggests that some athletes like Dara Torres may have a genetic and personality makeup that makes them able to excel in their sport.

"Most of us are not inclined to train like an Olympic athlete or a professional pitcher," Lipsitz said. "Even if we did, we wouldn't necessarily swim as fast or throw as hard. We are simply not built like that. I don't marvel at their accomplishments, I applaud those accomplishments. What I marvel at is my kids lying on the couch and gaining muscle mass while I have to work hard just to maintain it."

By the way, Lipsitz says that "use it or lose it" applies to intellectual pursuits as well. We have a lot of room to expand our mental capacity, too. I guess I should start by thinking about getting off the couch.