Dr. Joseph Maroon, longtime team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has been competing in triathlons for 37 years, crediting the races for lifting him out of a depression after the death of his father.

He’s tried various training methods over the years, advocating for sleep, supplements and resistance bands. But last summer, in his 80s, he tried something new. As part of his training, he spent time in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, breathing 100% pure oxygen in two-hour sessions, five times a week for 12 weeks.

After the oxygen therapy, he dropped his time in the triathlon by 23 minutes, completing a sprint length triathlon in less than two hours last month at the National Senior Games in Key Biscayne, Fla.

“I was able to increase my endurance by 9.5 to 10%, objectively measured,” said Dr. Maroon, 82, who did tests of cardiovascular functioning before and after the treatments. “I think it did help.”

Oxygen therapy

He received the oxygen therapy at Aviv Clinics in Florida, which has been building on the work of the Israeli physician Shai Efrati to offer hyperbaric oxygen as a treatment for the aging process in general.

Hyperbaric oxygen has been used medically for decades, including by the U.S. Navy in the 1940s to treat divers with decompression sickness. It is also used to treat carbon monoxide poisoning – after the Sago Mine Disaster in West Virginia in 2006, for example, surviving miner Randal McCloy received hyperbaric oxygen treatments.

In recent years, use of hyperbaric oxygen has expanded to many more conditions, from severe anemia to burns and wounds. As it became more popular, and began to be touted by celebrities such as Madonna and Justin Bieber for a wide range of health and beauty uses, the Food and Drug Administration put out a “Get the Facts” statement last year listing 13 conditions that hyperbaric oxygen has been approved for and also noting that “HBOT devices are not proven to cure cancer, Lyme disease, autism or Alzheimer’s disease.”

The statement says that the therapy “is generally safe, and serious complications are rare.”

But because of the increased pressure and increased concentration of the oxygen, ear, eye and lung risks are possible.

In Israel, Dr. Efrati has done research on hyperbaric oxygen therapy’s effect on the aging process, publishing a paper in the journal Aging in 2020 showing that his oxygen regimen lengthened telomeres, a marker of aging at the cellular level.

Dr. Maroon said that he could feel a difference from the oxygen on his recovery after workouts. He did a test before and after doing the oxygen therapy where he ran on a treadmill to exhaustion, and was able to increase his endurance by about 10 percent.

Overcoming struggles

A college football player at Indiana University, Dr. Maroon had let his physical fitness go as he focused on his career as a neurosurgeon. When his father died suddenly of a heart attack when Dr. Maroon was 40, he quit medicine temporarily to help his mother run the family’s truck stop in Bridgeport, Ohio.

He struggled with his mental health at the time, and a friend invited him to come running with him. The exercise was life-changing, and Dr. Maroon started competing, first running in a 10K and then in triathlons, working up to Ironman triathlons.

“Triathlons literally saved my life when I was in a mid-life crisis,” he said. “I was able to go for a run, learn discipline, learn to bike, and started competing. Aerobic activity is the best antidepressant.”

Dr. Maroon returned to practicing medicine and co-developed the ImPACT test to help diagnose concussions. He is currently a neurosurgical consultant for the Pittsburgh Steelers, medical director for the WWE and clinical professor of neurological surgery and the Heindl Scholar in Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

He has written several books, both about his personal life journey and with health advice for diet and supplements including fish oil, cocoa, red wine and resveratrol.

What others can do

Though not everyone in their 80s needs to compete in triathlons, as he does, Dr. Maroon recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity per week for everyone, in whatever form they enjoy. “Everything from yoga, meditation, exercise bands, weights, walking, any sport you imagine,” he said.

Dr. Maroon considers physical exercise, including some strength training after age 40, to be one of five pillars of health. He also recommends a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, lean protein and legumes; avoiding environmental toxins such as smoking and air pollution; controlling stress, and getting adequate sleep.

He personally trains for the sprint triathlons about 8 to 10 hours a week, but trained around 20 hours a week when he was doing Ironman triathlons.

He added the oxygen therapy last summer, sitting in a room that resembles an airplane for a two-hour session five times a week, for 12 weeks. In the pressurized chamber, he would breathe 100% oxygen for 20 minutes at a time, with breaks for breathing normal air, which has 21% oxygen.

Through his performance in triathlons this year, Dr. Maroon qualified for USA Triathlon’s Toyota Age Group National Championships, to be held in Milwaukee in August.

He also plans to compete in the National Senior Games next year, when they return to Pittsburgh for the first time since 2005.

Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com.

First Published June 12, 2022, 6:00am