Aging Athlete

Definition

Aging athletes typically are men and women 40 years and older who, despite their advancing age, continue to pursue athletic and sporting achievement. Aging athletes can be either healthy or have clinically significant chronic conditions or limitations that affect movement ability, fitness, or physical activity. Aging athletes might participate in local or regional events along with their younger counterparts or in specially organized senior events such as the National Senior Games with competitors in similar age groups.

Purpose

The primary purpose of many athletic seniors is to remain competitive in their sporting endeavors as they age. Despite the continued desire to perform at a high level, the so-called win-at-all-costs attitude commonly found among younger competitors is less common in the aging athletic community. Aging athletes tend to value competition and competitors more for their own individual achievement. Aging athletes also frequently report that they continue to participate in athletic competitions because they love the game.

Description

The major challenge to continued high-level performance facing aging athletes is how their bodies change and how some physiological functions continue to deteriorate. The decline in nearly all functions of the body, such as the heart, lung, and muscle systems, typically begins after 20 years of age. This decline is gradual from 20 to 50 years of age; however, it tends to speed up or cause more limitations in the 50s and 60s. Although training at a high volume and intensity can slow the decline, aging athletes are destined for the same experience as everyone else in the population. Generally, this decline involves the following:

The collective decrease in function of the cardiovascular, pulmonary, and musculoskeletal systems results in a decrease in maximal oxygen uptake at a rate of approximately 1% per year. Agility, balance, coordination, and reaction time also decline with age. Decreases in these skill-related components of fitness hinder the aging athlete's performance in some events such as baseball and racquet sports.

However, participating in athletic events at an advanced age is entirely possible for many older adults and usually leads to better overall health. Regular exercise and physical activity improve physical and mental health. Older adults should follow recommendations from their physician and coach to avoid injury.

Demographics

The number of aging athletes participating in sporting activities has increased markedly in the past several decades. In 1987, the first National Senior Games were held in St Louis, Missouri, with 2,500 athletes participating. Nearly 10,000 athletes attended the National Senior Games in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2015. Similar growth in the number of participants has occurred at the World Masters Games. The first event took place in Toronto, Canada, in 1985; there were approximately 25,000 competitors expected to participate in 28 sports for the 2017 games.

Preparation

KEY TERMS
Cardiovascular disease—
Characterized by narrowed or blocked blood vessels that place individuals at risk for heart attack or stroke.
Cardiovascular disease risk factors—
Physiological parameters whereby exceeding threshold values places one at an increased risk for developing cardio vascular disease. Measures of threshold values that show a person is at increased risk for developing cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease; the specific risk factors by the American College of Sports Medicine include age, family history of heart disease, high cholesterol, hypertension, obesity, physical inactivity, pre-diabetes, and smoking.
Cool down—
A five-to-ten minute period of low-intensity activity following vigorous activity.
Ejection fraction—
The fraction of blood pumped by the left ventricle each beat; technically, it is stoke volume divided by end-diastolic volume.
Electrocardiogram (ECG)—
A test that records the electrical activity of the heart.
Flexibility—
The ability of joints to move through the full range of motion.
Functional limitations—
Compromised ability to carry out activities of daily living; for instance, requiring assistancewith personal hygiene or needing to take an elevator rather than being able to walk up stairs.
Maximal cardiac output—
Total volume of blood capable of being pumped by the left ventricle per minute during intense exercise.
Maximal heart rate—
The maximal heart rate that can be elicited in an individual during intense exercise or exertion; this value can either be estimated (most commonly using the equation 220–age) or directly measured from a maximal exercise test.
Maximal oxygen uptake—
The highest rate at which oxygen can be taken up and consumed by the body during intense exercise.
Maximal stroke volume—
Maximal difference between end-diastolic volume and end-systolic volume during intense exercise.
Myocardial infarction—
A heart attack; changes to the heart tissue, with tissue death the principal one, due to sudden disruptions in oxygenated blood flow.
Stress test—
Type of test that gradually progresses in intensity; generally, it is performed on a treadmill. Heart rate, blood pressure, and electrocardiogram are monitored throughout the tests. It is commonly performed to diagnose possible heart disease.
Residual lung volume—
The amount of air remaining in the lungs following a maximal exhalation.
Sudden cardiac death—
Abrupt and unexpected death due to heart problems; usually death occurs within one hour of symptom onset.
Type 2 diabetes—
A metabolic disorder characterized by high blood sugar levels.
Warm up—
A 5-to-10 minute period of low-intensity activity preceding the conditioning phase.

Risks

The higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease in older adults is responsible for elevated risk of heart disease amo all adults. The absolute risk of sudden death during vigorous, physical activity has been estimated to be 1 per year for every 15,000–18,000 people. Vigorous-intensity activities such as racquet sports, running, and strenuous sporting endeavors are linked to a greater incidence of cardiovascular events. Overall risk is lessened when the individual performs greater volumes of regular exercise. For this reason, aging athletes can have less risk than their peers; however, not all older athletes perform a high volume of training. Subsequently, aging athletes can benefit in their preparation for training and competition by following a few strategies aimed at lowering risk; these include performing a proper exercise warm up and cool down and gradual progression of exercise intensity from moderate to vigorous.

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DOCTOR

Results

Performance results for aging athletes vary considerably. In many professional sports, individuals continue playing and competing at the very highest level into their 40s. This typically occurs with sports that require a high level of skill (e.g., American football, golf, baseball). For instance, George Blanda, a National Football League quarterback and later kicker (both highly skilled positions), played until he was 48. At the age of 59, Tom Watson nearly won the 2009 British Open, the oldest professional golf championship event. In contrast, in sports that require great muscle power and cardiovascular endurance for top performance, such as sprinting, endurance running, and triathlons, there are fewer world-class aging athletes participating. Still, Martina Navratilova played tennis at 49, Gordie Howe played ice hockey at 52, and Satchel Paige played baseball at 59. John Whittemore has been credited with being the world's oldest athlete; he competed in Master's Track & Field events with his last performance at the age of 104.

Resources

BOOKS

Friel, Joe. Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life. Boulder: VeloPress, 2015.

McArdle, William D., Frank I. Katch, and Victor L. Katch. Essentials of Exercise Physiology, 8th ed. Philadelphia: Wolter Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Health, 2014.

Thompson, Walter R., editor. ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Health, 2010.

PERIODICALS

Geard, D., et al. “Masters Athletes: Exemplars of Successful Aging?” Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. Published electronically October 21, 2016. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1123/japa.2016-0050 .

WEBSITES

DeBoom, Nicole. “Aging Athlete: Getting Older…Rest More!” Runners World. http://www.runnersworld.com/run-matters/get-older-rest-more (accessed November 28, 2016).

Exercise and Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging. National Institute on Aging. http://www.nia.nih.gov/HealthInformation/Publications/exercise.htm (accessed November 28, 2016).

MedlinePlus. “Sports Injuries.”(November 28, 2016). https://medlineplus.gov/sportsinjuries.html (accessed November 28, 2016).

National Institute on Aging. “Exercise and Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging.” http://www.nia.nih.gov/HealthInformation/Publications/exercise.htm (accessed November 28, 2016).

ORGANIZATIONS

American College of Sports Medicine, 401 W. Michigan Street, Indianapolis, IN, 46202-3233, (317) 6379200, Fax: (317) 634-7817, http://www.acsm.org .

American Council on Exercise, 4851 Paramount Drive, San Diego, CA, 92123, (888) 825-3636, support@acefitness.org, http://www.acefitness.org .

American Society on Aging, 571 Market Street, Suite 2100, San Francisco, CA, 94105-2869, (415) 974-9600, Fax: (415) 974-0300, (800) 537-9728, http://www.asaging.org .

International Masters Games Association, Avenue de Rhodanie 54, Lausanne, Switzerland, 1007, 41 21 601-8171, Fax: 41 21 601-8173, info@imga.ch, http://www.imga.ch/ .

USA Track & Field, 132 E. Washington Street, Suite 800, Indianapolis, IN, 46204, (317) 261-0500, Fax: (317) 261-0481, http://www.usatf.org .

Lance C. Dalleck, BA, MS, PhD
Revised by Teresa G. Odle, BA, ELS

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.