The super athlete

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First aired on Ontario Morning (26/06/12)

The world-class athletes competing in the London Olympics have spent years training, pushing and punishing themselves to the point of near physical perfection. But how much of their amazing performances are the result of hours sweated away in the gym, as opposed to the genetic gifts they've been blessed with?

According to kinesiologist Greg Wells, author of the book Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World's Best Athletes, natural physiology plays a "huge role." As an example, he points to Michael Phelps, the American swimmer who captivated the world at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when he won eight gold medals, usually in dominating fashion.

"He's got very unusual physiology," Wells told Ontario Morning during a recent interview. "His arm span, for example, is longer than his height, which allows his arms to move underneath the water and to grab water at different angles than some of his competitors. It's a unique physiology he has that allows him to have this amazing ability to propel himself through the water."

Well says another athlete genetically predisposed to succeed in his sport is Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. The six-foot-five Bolt is usually "taller than everyone else in the field, significantly so, and as a result he has longer legs and he takes fewer steps than everyone else. So even though he runs the 100-metre dash, he's in contact with the ground for less than three seconds of the 9.5 seconds it took him to run it."

However, Wells adds that these athletes have risen to the top of their respective sports because they have maximized their genetic potential through intense training. Phelps has trained daily in competitive swimming since the age of 14. Videos of Usain Bolt lifting weights and practicing his racing technique abound on YouTube.

"It's just incredible to watch people like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps perform. But, again, it's always against the background of fortunate genetics, [and] at the same time amazing commitment to training."

Most of us don't possess the kind of freakish natural ability that these Olympic athletes have, but Wells says consistent training can yield significant benefits for the average person and change their physiology to function better. We may never win an Olympic medal, but at least we can train to be healthy.

Research has shown that even 20 minutes a day of light exercise, such as walking, can help improve body functions like lowering blood pressure and increasing lung capacity.

"There's no question we can all learn from these athletes, be inspired from these athletes," Wells said. "We don't have to train four, five, six, seven hours. We just have to do it a little bit consistently over an extended period of time."