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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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, firstname.lastname@example.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, email@example.com, 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