Except in the case of an overuse or stress injury, the short answer is: No. “The point is to keep doing what you've always done,” says Loretta DiPietro, a George Washington University exercise and nutrition scientist. People will naturally find that their pace slows or that they require more rest days between bouts of exercise. Time may even reveal when it is appropriate to discontinue new activities entirely. However, there are options (as well as competitive leagues) to help with transitions.
A competitive person may find it difficult to accept that the same activities will gradually take more time to complete. But that is why DiPietro believes it is important to engage in activities that you enjoy, rather than just those that make you a winner. And for those who do want to compete for a prize, age-based competition brackets will more than suffice. Competing against younger, faster, and more agile competitors may tempt one to push themselves too hard in order to keep up. Such strain can result in stress injuries, which older people recover from more slowly. You can compete against someone with similar limitations by playing against your peers. “Just as you may have slowed down a little bit, you're playing against other people who have slowed down a little bit,” DiPietro explains.
Don't be concerned if you haven't been dedicated to a particular workout your entire life. You can also introduce new activities as you get older. Master athletes — those who compete in athletic events after the typical retirement age — are living proof of this concept. The activity determines who qualifies as a "master." Swimming has a cutoff age of 25, weightlifting has a cutoff age of 35, and long-distance running has a cutoff age of 50. However, those are only the minimum ages. Athletes in their 80s and 90s complete marathons, and DiPietro plays for the United States women's over-60 field hockey team. She's also seen a men's 75-and-up field hockey game. “There isn't much running. “If there was running, it was difficult to tell it apart from the walking,” she says. “However, as competitive.”
People believe that master athletes have spent their entire lives training in their chosen sport, according to Hiro Tanaka, an exercise physiologist at the University of Texas at Austin. But that is not the case. “It's interesting because if you look at the elite master athletes,” he says, “many of them are not really athletes when they're young,” referring to those who, for example, set world records on their event for their age division. They only recently began exercising at a later age.” Overall, the achievements of master athletes set a great example. “It's actually a positive message that, you know, no matter your age, it's never too late to start exercising and rediscover what you're capable of.”
How to Redial It
To be sure, there are some activities that people may only be able to do for a limited time in their lives, according to DiPietro. Gymnasts, for example, are unlikely to be able to perform vaults in their 70s. And, in some cases, strenuous activities can quickly deplete people's bodies. Former contact sport athletes, in particular, face decline. Former NFL players, for example, were nearly four times more likely to have arthritis than males of a similar age who did not play football professionally, and the painful joint condition was more likely if the athlete had suffered tendon or knee injuries during their career. Meanwhile, a study of retired rugby players found that they were six times more likely to require a joint replacement and twice as likely to report dealing with bodily pain or mobility issues.
Tanaka believes that one of the reasons many master athletes were not at the top of their game in their youth is that those who were in that position put significant strain on their bodies. Those who outran or outswam their peers when they were younger may not be able to perform the same motions as well as they get older.
If an activity becomes too difficult, the next step is to switch to something that does not put as much strain on the body. Biking and rowing are both low-impact sports, which means they are easier on your joints. Swimming is the ultimate low-impact activity because there is no weight bearing at all. “Swimming is an underappreciated form of exercise for older people,” says Tanaka. Elderly people are more prone to heat stress as well, and being immersed in water alleviates this concern significantly.
And, if it isn't already, try to incorporate strength training into your routine. Because weight lifting only became a regular part of athletic training in the 1980s, some older people aren't in the habit of pumping iron. Even if you start with light weights, DiPietro says it is possible to progress, even if it means gradually adding more pounds or taking more rest days between sessions.
According to DiPietro, aging can often mean experiencing more and more loss — of partners, of proximity to family, and, during the pandemic, of most social interaction. Maintaining workout routines and the social groups that go with them can be an exception to this trend. Take a cue from the 75-year-old field hockey players if necessary: There will be a series for those aged 80 and up next year.