Retired professor continues studying exercise

David Costill has appeared in the New York Times, performed tests on famous runners such as Steve Prefontaine and now he's building his own airplane.

Although most of Costill's accomplishments have happened since he came to Ball State in 1966, they weren't his first. Now that he is retired, he has devoted the past three years to research and writing.

Before coming to Ball State he was a high school teacher and coach in Cleveland. After accepting a job to teach science, he went to the State University of New York at Cortland where he coached swimming and cross country.

According to Costill, as a budding Ball State professor and director of the Human Performance Lab, he came to the university interested in the physiological aspect of runners.

"I came to the realization that there was no way I was going to spend the rest of my life teaching," Costill said. "When I found out you could make a living (by this), I never felt like I chose a profession."

When he came to Ball State there was not much funding for research, so he wrote a letter to the Gatorade company, which had just come on the market. According to Costill, he didn't know what to expect. He asked for $800. He got $8,000 instead.

Since then, the department has received substantial funding through the Federal Government, U.S. Army, American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association, among other organizations.

In the early '90s he began to study age and has focused the majority of his studies on the process since.

What he found was that the rate of human physiological aging decreases 1 percent per year and is a continuous downhill slide from the age of 25 for those who are not persistently active. If you train vigorously, however, you can reduce the rate, Costill said.

In his studies, Costill found that previous Olympic runners' lifestyles changed after they were done competing. Some stayed active and continued to run, while some quit completely, he said.

"They were all highly trained, but the motivation to compete differed," Costill said. "Some -- a lot of it -- is personality. The primary finding is that if you continued to train, the rate of physiological decline is less."

Costill said looking at parents and grandparents is a good way to predict the future because genetics plays a big role. Along with the weight problem in America, Costill said economic status can contribute also. Food is readily available and while the average American's diet is rather large, activity levels are small.

Vigorous and devout training is apparent in Costill's life and has always been a big part. After having been an avid runner his whole life, Costill retired to swimming about 20 years after he came to Ball State. He still swims every day.

These days, swimming comes easily to Costill. He swam at Ohio University while he was in college and, according to Costill, it was easy to return to. It seems he never lost his edge for competition as he still competes nationally in a full range of events that are similar to collegiate competitions.

"All you have to do is outlive your competition," Costill said jokingly.

In his early years at Ball State, he coached the swim team, and now he assists men's swimming and diving coach Bob Thomas.

"We know what you can do to screw up a good swimmer," he said. "The common mistake is that you usually work too hard."

Costill worked with NASA back in 1996 to study space shuttle crews. The experiment performed muscle biopsies on the crews before and after they were in space.

"Some of the things we see in space flight are similar to aging," Costill said.

After spending about eight hours at work during the day, Costill goes home and "plays" with his airplane. He received his pilot's license about five years ago and flies his plane to his home in Wisconsin during the summer.

Costill used to restore old cars, including Camaros and Corvettes. These days it's his airplane. Although it comes easily to him, Costill noted an important difference.

"Airplanes are a little different. If a car quits you just pull it to the side of the road," he said.

Aside from his vigorous research and hobbies, Costill manages to maintain his sense of humor. He wrote for Runner's World for 10 years, and Costill said he still gets e-mails from magazine writers asking about exercising and aging.

"I just tell them: It's best to admit you don't have a clue," he said. "They ask crazy questions sometimes."


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