What does an older athlete need to consider?
Who is an older athlete? Some people think it is anyone over 25 years of age. Others think being over age 40 or 50 puts you in that category. While the body undeniably ages, what part of the equation do mindset and habits play in all of this? Here are factors that should be considered when deciding what exercise is going to be safe and effective for an older athlete:
- Experience in a given activity
- Personal safety
- Understanding of how the body works
- Weight control
- Stress moderation
- Injury prevention
- Old injury
- Time investment
- Coordination with other activities
- Coordination with other people
Let’s flesh these ideas out a little
A quick look at the list tells you that these considerations are not unique to older athletes, but how they might be evaluated may be.
1. Experience in a particular activity can result in both the knowledge and skill to pursue it in later years when it might be overwhelming or much less safe for someone without such experience. Rock climbing comes to mind when I think of this. Developing the fundamental strength and understanding of this sport is probably going to limit older people who have never tried it. On the other hand, something like walking is just an extension of life and doesn’t require much thinking to get started.
2. By personal safety, I mean being safe from other people. Unfortunately, the older athlete may be more of a target for troublemakers, especially if he or she looks exhausted or lost. It is for this reason that I prefer to run or bike in familiar places, where I know there are a lot of regulars. If I don’t, I try to look like I have a plan. At least, let someone know where you are going to be and for approximately how long.
3. An older athlete may have lower tolerance for climate/weather factors, particularly if in a new location or new to a given activity. Since an older body is, on average, less resilient than a younger body, it just pays to be wise about extremes. That doesn’t mean an older athlete cannot adapt, but it might be more important to do it more gradually and cautiously.
4. At any age it is very useful to learn to distinguish fad from fiction, or cultural norms from actual wisdom, when it comes to understanding your body. It can make you or break you on a whole new level when you are older. You will make things harder for yourself, injure yourself more, and deprive yourself of fun if you don’t use your body the way it was designed to be used. Of course, one prime example is footwear. Any footwear that limits the muscles and bones in the feet is limiting balance and shock absorption. Another example is heart rate. The heart and lungs need to be gradually strengthened to supply oxygen to the body and this is done best by having a high percentage of effort be sustainable over time.
5. If weight management is not on your agenda, you are in the minority. Even though I rarely weigh myself, I know how my clothes fit and how I look. It is hard to say how much of weight gain as we grow older is due to metabolism changes and how much is due to activity level changes. What is clear is that we burn calories if we physically use our bodies. If you want to burn calories, you need to choose activities that require more movement. So while yoga may be great for flexibility and strength, it probably isn’t going to help burn a lot of calories.
6. Stress in life is unavoidable. We all have it, though its exact causes may change as we age. What doesn’t change is that physical activity can help relieve stress in a number of ways. The body is designed to be physical, so we may actually be creating stress if we avoid physical activity, leaving ourselves feeling agitated or unable to sleep well. Besides that, stress can create a sort of emotional or mental energy that is only possible to dissipate with some moderate physical activity.
7. It is never too late to strengthen the body in ways that can prevent injury. Targeting muscles that may have deteriorated due to a desk job or bad posture is always good. Or possibly you want to try a new activity, but can see the wisdom in doing a bit of injury prevention strengthening first. The fact is that stronger muscles or lungs are better equipped to deal with unexpected situations. Like when I took a dive to catch my 4 month old puppy last week. If I hadn’t been running and gardening (part of my strength training), it may have not gone nearly as well as it did.
8. Old injuries can be challenging, but they don’t need to excuses to not be active. Sometimes you may need to vary your approach to an activity you love. I have done this with running barefoot and found that an old knee surgery no longer bothers me. Sometimes you may find it better to pursue another enjoyed activity instead. Sometimes you just need to take a break and let more total healing occur. A lot will depend on how much you enjoy the activity in question.
9. For most people, there is more discretionary time as we get older. Kids are grown and we have fewer demands on our time. This means we may have the time and mental energy to give to both enjoying old favorite activities and learning new ones. My swimming skills never really took off until I was in my late 40’s, and now I can swim with an ease that I earlier did not think possible. Running longer distances is much more practical now that my schedule does not involve daily care for many young children. If we don’t get too hung up on “being old,” we can take advantages of changes like this.
10. Similarly, finances are typically more stable and with fewer responsibilities to drain them. This means there is often more opportunity to invest in equipment or relationships. If it helps, think of it as a type of health insurance or make it part of your recreation budget. Don’t feel guilty about investing in equipment that allows you do exercise when and where you want to (like our spin bikes in the basement) or buying that nice road bike because it just feels so good to ride it.
11. It seems to be popular to advise older athletes what they should or shouldn’t do at a certain age. Besides being based on unfounded assumptions about aging and/or on very disputable research, such recommendations are too broad to be of use to individuals. Hopefully the first 10 points above help dispel unnecessary concerns about such advice. What older athletes should do is have FUN! If an activity sounds interesting or is known to be fun, then don’t let someone else tell you you shouldn’t try it. So what if you don’t see many or any other people your age doing it. That is their loss if they are avoiding it because they are old.
12. It can be useful to choose your exercise or activities based on how it will coordinate with the rest of your life. For instance, if you want to go snorkeling in a tropical location on a regular basis, swimming would be a good activity to pursue. If you like to go hiking all summer, then running or power walking will be good things to keep up with. If you are like me and like to go out dancing every few weeks, you will enjoy it much more if you have built up stamina from running and flexibility from gardening.
13. Of course, coordinating with important people in your life will make your activities more enjoyable and rewarding, too. Many of our best friends like to go out dancing with us. It is fun to run with my twentysomething daughters sometimes, though only when they are running a more relaxed pace. Keeping up with my swimming enables me to give lessons to grandkids. Staying fit in general allows me to make a show of keeping up with my husband on hikes, in spite of his phenomenal lung capacity.
14. Pets are more easily included in some activities than others and pets are often important to older people. I see some people ride bikes with their dogs, but it makes me cringe. It would take particular training for that to go well consistently. It seems horseback riding on trails with dogs goes pretty well, from what I see out and about. I like being able to run with our older dog sometimes, but we also have a big enough yard that I don’t have to devote a lot of time to exercising her. The new puppy may be a different story and my husband has been on a lot of hikes lately to give her exercise.
15. I have definitely been traveling more in the last 10 years than all the prior years of my life. For that reason, I find it useful to have some regular exercise options that can be done almost anywhere. Again, running is high on the list for that. Swimming opportunities have been known to come up in unexpected places, like swimming in the rooftop pool of the Hyatt in Taipei or swimming laps in Cozumel. Bikes can be rented in many places, trails abound in mosts locations, TRX straps take up very little room in a suitcase, and you can do yoga on the beach, so there are many activities that are decently portable.
Activity choices are very individual decisions
How active a person was during his younger years has an impact on future fitness. There are so many variations on how younger people do or don’t stay active. Not everyone has a formal exercise routine, but some people have activity built into their lifestyle. Not everyone is consistently active.
How old someone is in regard to activity potential and safety has more to do with individual choices than a given age. It is good to try to be wise about one’s current situation, but that doesn’t mean we need to live in some kind of limited activity bubble as we age. Show the young people in your life that fun activity doesn’t have to end at 30 or 40 or whatever that magic black number is supposed to be.