The 7 Best Sports for Older Adults

By Greg Presto, Livestrong

If you want to live more years — and have those years be ‌better‌ years — you’ve got to move, and move often.

Burning calories literally reduces your risk of death: In a study published in the ‌British Medical Journal in 2019 that looked at 14,599 people, burning an extra calorie per kilogram of bodyweight per day was associated with a reduced risk of death by 24 percent.

So a person who weighs about 200 pounds can cut their risk of death by a ‌quarter‌ by burning just 90 more calories per day. That’s the number of calories that person would burn by walking a little more than half a mile.

But when physical activity also helps maintain your strength in your legs, you don’t just improve the amount of time you live, says Dan Ritchie, PhD, co-founder of the Functional Aging Institute. You’ve got a higher quality of life to look forward to during those extra years.

“The two critical pieces for thriving as we age are lower-body functional strength and lower-body functional power,” he says. Functional means moving in lots of patterns and under different stressors.

“It’s movements like stepping up and down things in different directions, with weights in different positions: forward, sideways, with a weight in front of you, over your head.”

You can move like this in the gym, of course, but doing so on a court or field while playing sports offers an added bonus, says Darci Revier, CSCS, director of education for the National Exercise Trainers Association.

“One of the big things with an older population is the social and cognitive aspect of sport — creating a social bond,” she says. “That’s so important, because as we start to become isolated, not only do we see mental decline, but also physical decline. Because if we’re not socially engaged and we stay home, we’re not using our bodies as much.”

Plus, sports are fun! Here’s what it takes to thrive as we age — and seven sports you should try playing to have fun on the way.

4 Pillars of Aging Fit

To stay fit and active as we age, keeping the lower body strong is critical for a reason, Ritchie says.

“You need a critical amount of lower-body strength for daily activities of living,” he says. “If you lose your lower-body strength, we don’t even need to talk about things like going for a hike: getting out of a chair becomes a problem.”

But there’s more to thriving. Maintaining our fitness in four key areas can make our later years greater. Here’s what you need to thrive, and how participating in sports can help.

  1. Maintain Bone and Muscle Mass

There are two reasons we become frail: We lose muscle and bone mass.

Starting from the time we’re around 40, adults begin to suffer from sarcopenia, another word for loss of muscle. The amount we lose is estimated to be up to 5 percent per year, but studies have found the number varies. At the same time, the density of our bones begins to reduceboth in men and women.

While the rates of each are unknown, we do know one way to slow both of these processes, Revier says.

“Maximize doing lower-impact, but weight-bearing, exercises can help with maintaining muscle and bone mass,” she says. Translation: Exercises that challenge your muscles without jarring your joints and bones too much. Sports, she says, provide the perfect avenue.

  • Maintain Cardiovascular Fitness

According to an October 2018 study of more than 120,000 people published in ‌JAMA‌ ‌Cardiology‌, cardiorespiratory fitness is inversely associated with the risk of death. So the fitter your ticker, the longer you’ll live.

You’ll know you have healthy heart if, according to Texas Health Resources, you can exercise without chest pain or shortness of breath and have steady energy levels throughout the day.

  • Maintain a Little Speed

“On thing that gets overlooked for older adults is power training,” Revier says. That doesn’t mean powerlifting, though. Strength is a measure of how much force you can produce (let’s say, picking up 30 pounds). But power is a measure of how ‌quickly‌ you can produce that force.

“You have to be able to produce force with speed, or it becomes difficult to walk up a hill or a set of stairs,” Ritchie says. “Playing games with your grandchildren is going to require a little bit of speed.”

Being able to move with power also helps reduce injuries, Revier says. When you start to fall, reacting quickly to catch yourself requires muscular power — the same type that’s trained and developed by many sports.

  • Maintain Joint Range of Motion

It’s no secret that we get stiff as we age. And when it comes to joint mobility, Revier says, the old adage applies: Use it or lose it.

Most of our daily lives, though, don’t encourage us to move our bodies through large and varying ranges of motion: We walk, sit, drive and maybe even run forward and backward. We’re not moving to the sides, rotating our trunks, reaching far out to the sides or above our bodies. All of these types of movements happen in sport, though.

Revier points out that in racket sports, for example, you might have to reach for a ball, twist your body to hit a shot, and bend up and down as you try to reach balls. Sports that help practice these larger ranges of motion can help us maintain the ability to reach them as we age, so we stay limber.

7 Sports Older Adults Should Try

  1. Pickleball
  2. Golf
  3. Dancing
  4. Masters Track, Cycling and Swimming
  5. Tai Chi
  6. Croquet and Bocce
  7. All the Other Racket Sports

It can be intimidating to learn a new sport, especially if you don’t consider yourself an elite athlete. For more information on these sports and the communities that support them, visit https://www.livestrong.com/