The longevity market thinks a lot about the role of purpose in aging these days. We create intergenerational living programs, encourage encore careers and develop interventions to prevent social isolation. But what about the role of sports?
Today’s elite athletes are playing at the top of their game far longer than in the past. Tennis champions Roger Federer and Serena Williams are still collecting trophies in their late-thirties (yes, that’s considered “old” for the pros). And 42-year-old quarterback Tom Brady says “it’s pretty unlikely” that he’ll retire even after this season’s playoff loss.
Older amateurs have also garnered attention in recent years. Remember the so-called “grandfather of cross-fit” Jacinto Bonilla?
Following are a collection of articles that capture research into aging athletes and provide a little inspiration for staying in the game no matter what your age.
Workouts that focus on improving balance, coordination, mobility and flexibility all may help reduce the risk of falls more than getting no exercise at all, the study found. And getting a variety of different types of exercise may have the greatest effect, regardless of whether individuals start out with a low or high risk for falls.
“All older adults should be regularly undertaking exercises that safely challenge their balance to prevent falls,” said Cathie Sherrington of the University of Sydney in Australia, the study’s lead author.
As athletes accumulate experience within their sports, they become more efficient processors of information. Put more briefly, the longer you play, the faster you think. But there’s intriguing evidence it works in the other direction as well. That is, the faster you think, the longer you’ll be able to play—because you’ll be able to avoid the kinds of injuries that cut athletes’ careers short.
The biological truth is you’re never too old to train at intensity, or to wield it. Intensity training commands relatively little workout time, makes you faster, and pretty much lassoes the aging process. “You’ll get slower more slowly,” says Hoffman.
Here’s the proof: last year, researchers at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic put 60 subjects—many of them between 65 and 80 years of age—through a 12-week program that included high-intensity aerobic interval training (HIIT). The regimen, which featured four four-minute cycling intervals three times per week, as well as treadmill work and resistance training, improved lean body mass, aerobic capacity, and mitochondrial function. Mitochondria are cell organelles that contribute to the making of new proteins, and their improved operation delivers greater energy and more musculature.
To stay healthy and fit, older people have traditionally been advised to take up gentle activities, such as walking and tai chi. But it’s time we added competitive sports to the mix…
Competitive sport is usually seen as a young person’s game…Given the physical demands, it is unsurprising that participation in most sports declines with age, resulting in few older people taking part… But the development of modified sport for older people, which often lowers the impact of some traditional sports, may start to change this mindset.
“I’m half in tears and half in awe watching these amazing athletes and what they achieve in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s and just marveling at their athleticism,” said the Bristol-based photographer [Alex Rotas, 68]… I did an internet search and once you put the word ‘old’ in you just get those pictures of older people slumped in chairs. So I thought ‘wow, there’s a gap worth filling’.” (editor’s note: click through and check out these amazing images!)
Though some people give up sports after high school or college, more and more adults are seeking out healthy competition. From road races to marathons to triathlons, many are finding ways to stay active and motivated as they age. The athletes we’ve found — some who have lived through the Great Depression, World War II and the Civil Rights movement — prove that health and fitness don’t have an age. With purpose and dedication, they’re dismissing boundaries and showing the world that speed, strength, athleticism and passion don’t have to fade as the years pass.
A version of this story was published in February 2019.