Getting older doesn’t mean getting worse
There is no doubt that older bodies respond to exercise differently than younger ones, but why exactly is that?
The National Library of Medicine conducted a study on athletic performance, comparing athletes who were 22.8 years apart.
The research showed that the ability to sustain high-intensity exercise, like sprinting, declines with age, given that we lose some of our fast muscle fiber. Older athletes need more recovery time, and sleep, which is a necessary part of any athlete’s training regimen, becomes more important.
But other than that, if the older athlete had been in consistently good shape, their heart rate, lactic acid level (the chemical that your muscles create after periods of intense activity) and respiratory exchange rate (the exchange between carbon dioxide and oxygen in your muscles) were relatively consistent.
Basically, you’re not going to be able to run the 100-meter dash at the same speed as a teenager, but if you mix up your routine to include rest, low-intensity exercise and weight lifting, you can still give them a run for their money.
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Let’s get physical
The Conversation reports that the way we keep fit changes as we get older because our bodies use oxygen differently.
V02 max, or “maximal oxygen consumption”, is a formula that measures how well your body uses oxygen per kilogram of body weight. It’s thought that the “normal” person loses 10% of oxygen usage every decade past the age of 30.
But if older athletes adapt to a different way of training, they can continue to smash records alongside their younger counterparts.
“I began to train using a run/walk method, which has helped a lot,” says Sam Guagliardo, a 66-year-old retiree from South Florida who is planning to run the New York Marathon this year.
“For anyone just starting out, I recommend literally taking it one step at a time. Run a block, then two, then three. Then one mile, then two, then three. Maybe that is all you need to run. Not everyone will be a marathoner, nor would everyone want to be.”
Golden years, gold medals
In 2023, there were two women and 10 men between the ages of 80 and 84 who completed the Ironman. But if you’re not up for a grueling triathlon, there are a number of other senior athletic competitions to help you see how far you can take your training.
The first National Senior Olympic Games (now the National Senior Games) was held in St Louis in 1987.
That initial year, it attracted 2,500 athletes across 15 different events. By 2023, there were more than 10,000 athletes and 21 different events to choose from.
All NSG athletes, who must be at least 50 years old, have to first compete at both local and state levels and place in their state's top four. The games themselves are held once every two years, and feature sports such as cycling, swimming, pickleball, track and field and soccer.
There are also the Huntsman World Senior Games, which take place every year in Utah.
Anyone over the age of 50 can compete in events like bowling, or square dancing. Individual early-bird pricing to register is $99 each.
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At the end of the day, it should be fun
If you’re not at competition-level fitness, don’t sweat it. Being part of a team (no matter the skill level) and getting regular exercise can be beneficial for your mental health.
For Guagliardo, putting together his own running group in 2008 was a game changer. It’s something he highly recommends to aspiring runners, regardless of experience.
“Join a running group, not just for running but also for the social aspect,” says Sam. “I know my life is better because of mine and am certain I would be in a very different place without it.”
If you’re looking to get into better shape but you feel discouraged by the amount of miles you have left to go, the key is to find something you enjoy that will also contribute to your health in the long-term.
You don’t necessarily have to join an official team or get to any kind of competitive level. Chances are your health professional or your local community center can recommend a fun place to start. The important thing to do is start.
New friends and fun ways of getting fit are waiting.
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