As populations around the world grow older, the challenges nations face are not just about how to redefine retirement. Many other important issues confront aging societies, as well, and the Silver Century Foundation (SCF) will explore them on this web page. We will examine the complexities of aging, including topics such as interdependence among the generations and the problems individuals face because they must support themselves throughout an ever-lengthening life span.
Older, Wiser, Slower After 50, Avid Athletes Find That to Stay Healthy, They Must Let Go of the Need to Win
“During Sunday’s Chicago Triathlon, I kept my heart rate low, cut my pace at every hint of muscular or cardiovascular pain and crossed the finish line about half an hour behind my personal record in that race. It was exhilarating.”
So says Kevin Helliker, a formerly extremely competitive athlete, who fought his hardest to win every triathlon, indeed every race he’d ever been in. But Helliker, always and still an avid athlete, has changed his goals now that he is over 50 and has been put on notice from his doctor that he must keep his heart rate below 170 because of a mild heart aneurysm. This news has completely reframed his attitude toward pursuing athletics after 50.
Amid ever-rising calls for more exercise in America, there isn’t much guidance on how to cut back in our 50s, 60s, and beyond. “The no pain-no-gain mentality suggests that you can keep making gains if you just work harder,” says Mark Allen, a 51-year-old athletic coach once known as the world’s fittest man for winning six Ironman Triathlon World Championships. Mr. Allen argues against fighting age with more hours on the treadmill. “If you can’t let up on the competitive part of it, if you have to go as fast at 50 as you did at 20, you will grind yourself into the ground and become stressed out, bitter and unhealthy,” he says.
As a matter of fact, a growing number of exercise scientists are questioning the more-and-harder philosophy of fitness (and not only for aging athletes), and instead are encouraging people to switch up their physical activity so that it remains a pleasant experience for them.
Older athletes struggling against declining performance are prone to excess training, which can hurt the immune system and raise levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. A number of medical experts, including Kenneth Cooper, the physician long ago credited with founding the aerobics movement, now believe that extreme exercise can increase the body’s vulnerability to disease like cancer.
For aging athletes, it is loss of prowess that can lead either to abandoning exercise or to a health-endangering doubling up of it, “in pursuit of what can’t be recaptured,” as Mr. Allen puts it.
The competitive flame can be hard to extinguish for avid athletes, both amateur and professional. Marjorie Albohn, President of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, who at 58 has become a recent devotee of spinning, says, “As you age, you have to be flexible about new activities.” A study published last year in The Annals of Behavioral Medicine reinforced other recent research showing that intensity tends to diminish the view of physical activity as pleasant and that feeling worse during exercise translates to doing less exercise in the future.
Albohm also explains that new sports or challenges can give long-used muscles a break while feeding the desire for new goals. Of course, exercise can provide substantial protection against chronic ailments ranging from heart disease and diabetes to dementia and depression, all the while helping weight control. But like any medical treatment, exercise can also cause damage, particularly in older athletes. The risk of sudden cardiac death rises substantially during exercise. Overuse injuries, especially involving joints, rise with age.
So how does this research and advice translate for avid athletes, for whom intense competition and winning have always been part of their inherent psyche, as well as for the rest of us as we age? It’s really a simple concept for people aged 50 and older: look at exercise in a different light, as a variety of exercises and activities that are noncompetitive. Incorporate changes in athletic activities to ensure that particular joints and muscles aren’t overly strained. And best of all, enjoy!
The Silver Century Foundation promotes a positive view of aging. The Foundation challenges entrenched and harmful stereotypes, encourages dialogue between generations, advocates planning for the second half of life, and raises awareness to educate and inspire everyone to live long, healthy, empowered lives.
"Adding years to people's lives through the magic of science and medicine, however impressive, is an insufficient ambition for American Society. Our objective, must be to add new life to those years."
President John F. Kennedy, 1961 White House Conference on Aging