Tens of thousands of older athletes increase their commitment to fitness as they age. The best sports for retirees involve fun, friends, and good exercise.
It was the final game of the three-day Ultimate Masters National Championship in Denver last summer. Wayne Tang, a 55-year-old attorney in Chicago, looked around at his teammates, many of whom he had known for 15 or 20 years. Somehow they had managed to continue playing frisbee during the pandemic, maintaining their social connections and physical fitness. “It was literally the only [extended period of ] of the time I could think of over the past few years that I was able to spend with a group of old friends doing something that we all loved,” Tang recalled. “Time with your peers is a very limited commodity as you get older.
Tang is one of tens of thousands of older athletes who are stepping up their commitment to sport and fitness as they age. In addition to the physical and mental health benefits of exercise, these seniors also praise the connections, sense of belonging and camaraderie associated with playing sports. For example, the biennial Senior National Games attract around 14,000 competitors, aged between 50 and 100, in the world’s largest qualified multi-sport competition, formerly known as the Senior Olympics. Participants participate in events across the country.
But seniors don’t need to be in games to play a sport, and many seniors play more than the stereotypical retirement sports of golf, pickleball and bocce. Seniors swim, cycle, row and run competitively and play everything from tennis, volleyball and softball to basketball and soccer – all have a dedicated seniors or open masters league to all.
No matter your skill level, you can find an activity that’s appropriate, fits your budget, and can be adjusted to the changing needs of an older body. Most people just want to stay active and stay healthy, says Ray Glier, publisher of the Geezer Jock newsletter. “The words I hear are fun, fitness and friends. Is it about the quality of life you want to have?”
Reasons to keep playing
Where previous generations might have retreated to a rocking chair on the porch, today’s retirees feel no such limitations, especially when the benefits of athleticism are so obvious. Vigorous exercise for at least 90 minutes a week lowers your blood pressure and cholesterol, supports your good cholesterol, helps maintain bone density and improves your flexibility, according to medical research.
Senior Games athletes, for example, not only do twice as much physical activity as the general population, but are also less likely to fall. “It impacts activities of daily living,” says Andrew Walker, health and wellness director for the National Senior Games Association, the nonprofit organization behind the eponymous event. Only 10% of Senior Games participants said they had fallen in the past year, compared to 35% to 40% in the general population, he says. “The stronger the joints, the more stability you have.” Strong muscles and a flexible body protect seniors from further injury and promote range of motion, helping people live independently longer.
Other benefits are harder to quantify, but are just as important. James Nathanson, 89, thinks the thrill of competition has helped him thrive. He continued to sail and play tennis until he was 80 because he loves competition. “That’s one of the reasons I think I’ve lived this long,” says Nathanson, a former lawyer and educator based in Washington, D.C. Sailing has been his true love since childhood when he learned to sail to Quincy Bay in Massachusetts. .
Nathanson, who also plays tennis, enjoys the social side of sports and believes these friendships help keep him vital and engaged in life. “Exercise and physical activity have a positive effect on our mood,” notes Caroline M. Brackette, an Atlanta-based licensed professional counselor and professor at Mercer University. Social connections, she says, “fulfill a need for connection and belonging.”
Team camaraderie encouraged Vicky Shu to return to swimming, which she exhausted in college. Shu, a 53-year-old nonprofit fundraiser in Oakland, Calif., has joined a masters club that includes adults of all ages. “It was great to meet other women my age who are going through similar changes in their bodies, like menopause, and talk about how they’re dealing with it,” she says. Because Shu swims the distance and the butterfly, both demanding events, she is regularly approached by swimmers in their 20s and 30s who tell her that she inspires them with her commitment. Knowing that she is a role model helps keep her motivated.
Whether you’re a swimmer like Shu or an avid sailor like Nathanson, the activity you choose should match your personality and temperament, said Brackette. Social butterflies may prefer a team sport like football or softball. If you like to beat your best time, try an individual sport like rowing or swimming. People in the middle might want a partner or a sport with a small team, like badminton or doubles tennis.
Most sports offer different levels of competition, from casual games to recreational leagues to teams with a paid coach. For example, “Athletics offers something for almost everyone: running long or fast, throwing, jumping. Masters athletics encompasses all skill levels,” says Amanda Scotti, Executive Committee Member of United States of Athleticswhich defines masters as being over 35 years old. Half of American track and field athletes are between 50 and 60 years old.
Think about whether you want to play and compete against people your own age or all ages. Nathanson says it keeps him young to compete against sailors and tennis players who are three or four decades younger than him.
Perhaps the most important consideration is to avoid injury. Check your ego when it comes to keeping up with your twenties, says Glier. That includes competing with your time from an early age, adds Shu. “Don’t try to be younger yourself, in terms of fitness, if you were an athlete. There’s just no way I’m going to beat my high school times, and that’s okay “, she says. “However, I can work to get as close to it as possible.”
If you are resuming exercise after a break, take it easy. “Allow yourself to practice and be patient. Learn smart techniques, listen to your body, talk to your peers for help and guidance,” Scotti suggests. She recommends finding a qualified trainer to coach older athletes. “Make sure they understand your fitness level, your possible goals, and are, #1, a good listener.”
A lower intensity level will help you stay active. Incorporate rest days into your training program and modify your exercises. Cross-training, strength training, and stretching help prevent injury at any age, but can be especially important for older athletes. “As we age, our bodies are constantly changing,” Shu says. “We have to pay attention to these changes so that we can do what we love for a very long time.”
The cost for seniors to play sports
Generally, the more serious you are about a sport, the more you will spend on equipment, clothing, and training or competition costs. You can get organized with a group of volunteers or join a team with a paid coach. Other costs include your personal equipment, space for practices, league and club fees, tournaments and travel expenses if you compete nationally. Sports like power walking and tennis can cost less than $100, while cyclists and archers often leave thousands with their gear alone. Nathanson, the lifelong sailor, spent around $10,000 buying his boat. Yacht club memberships, repairs and event fees cost him about $1,000 a year.
Under Medicare, some expenses to stay in shape may be covered, so check your plan. For example, Benefit of Medicare and some supplemental health insurance plans reimburse gym membership as well as SilverSneakers and Money and Cup online fitness classes and programs.
Your city or county government may provide recreation centers where you can play sports or work out for a low daily cost. Often, retirement communities have access to the best grounds and courts, Glier says.
Whatever you spend, think of it as an investment that will likely pay off in the form of reduced medical and hospitalization costs, Walker says, adding that with senior sports, “there are a lot of hidden economic benefits.”