Views of life after 60 are changing, thanks in part to an increasingly large cohort of active older adults who are pushing the boundaries of what it means to age. Once considered a time of declining health, activity, independence and productivity, baby boomers aren’t as ready to retire to their Barcaloungers as previous generations have done.
Instead, those born between 1946 and 1964 are embracing new challenges, sports and activities once thought too strenuous for the grey hair set. Golf courses, gyms, curling rinks, pickleball courts, swimming pools and ice rinks are welcoming more and more older adults into their facilities, and it’s not unusual to see runners and cyclists in their 60s and 70s getting in a vigorous workout on the streets of local communities.
This new active-for-life trend has spawned its own lingo with ‘positive aging” and “active aging” replacing “getting older.” The World Health Organization defines positive aging “as the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age” and suggests its best achieved when “opportunities for health, participation and security advance quality of life as people age.”
Yet not all communities have a sufficient range of activities and opportunities to meet the diverse needs of this growing community of active older adults. This is especially true when it comes to competitive sports. But with more sport organizations creating competitive masters divisions, aging out of sports is no longer a given.
Anyone 35 or older is eligible to compete as a masters athlete, with masters divisions offered in most sports, including golf, swimming, curling, badminton, tennis, diving, athletics, hockey, weightlifting and windsurfing. There are also seniors games in most provinces and the annual Canada 55+ Games in cities across Canada. So while opportunities to compete with age-matched peers can’t always be found locally, there are some regional and national organizations that welcome older athletes.
Not everyone competing in masters events were competitive in their youth. There are “continuers” who played the sport with little or no disruption over the years, “rekindlers” who return to the sport after an extended period of absence and “late bloomers” who take up the sport at a later age. And while not all masters athletes choose to compete, they typically have higher-than-normal levels of physical activity as compared with their peers and are committed to regular workouts/training and improving their skills.
But it’s not just the well-documented physical benefits of playing sports that contributes to the positive aging of masters athletes. A team of researchers from Western University and the University of Alberta interviewed 40 Canadian masters athletes, 50 to 79 years of age and representing 15 different sports, to better understand the positive influence sports has on their lives.
“Almost half of the participants in this study indicated a sense of positive well-being in terms of being happy, having less stress and enjoying life through sport,” the researchers said.
The athletes also said they benefited from a boost in self-confidence, pride, achievement and an enhanced sense of purpose in life.
Socially, they reported being included in a larger and more diverse circle of friends since participating in masters sports, remarking on the camaraderie between fellow athletes and the opportunity to meet outside of their normal training hours.
“Many of these athletes seem to have their own communities within their sport that allow them to engage in other activities outside of sport, which was seen as a positive benefit of their participation in sport,” the researchers said.
About one-fifth of the athletes felt participation in sports had a positive effect on their cognitive abilities, commenting that they felt more alert and better focused. Others remarked that sports required problem solving and strategic decision-making, which kept them mentally sharp.
Add all those psychological benefits to the many physiological benefits of participating in masters athletics — reduced risk of chronic disease and greater retention of muscle mass, cardiovascular endurance and other markers of sedentary aging like balance, strength and agility — and masters athletes are changing the trajectory of chronological aging.
Redefining the golden years from a time of functional decline to one of a renewed sense of athletic achievement, personal motivation and psychological well-being is what active aging is all about.
And the best thing about taking up new athletic challenges as you age is rediscovering the joy of being active and rekindling your competitive spirit. You can also show younger generations that aging isn’t a slow descent into a sedentary lifestyle, but rather a chance to learn new skills and find new passions.
Just look at the many over-60 pickleball enthusiasts who are forcing communities across North America to invest in new facilities, joining newfound friends on pickleball-themed cruises as well as humbling a fair number of younger players on the court.
So whether you’re a potential continuer, rekindler or late bloomer, never say never when it comes to taking up a new sport.