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Competitive sports can be healthy at all ages

The Bottom Line

  • Sport is important for human development. It promotes quality of life and has beneficial effects on the physical, cognitive, psychological and social health.
  • There is a tendency to focus on recreational sports for older adults, instead of competitive sports, due to fears about the loss of capacity and other age-related stereotypes.
  • Recreational or competitive sport is a way for older people to stay active, break through isolation and develop their social network.

Not so long ago, the practice of sports was reserved for the youngest. It was believed that aging was synonymous with health problems and physical decline. Fortunately, this negative perception has changed and aging is now synonymous with well-being, personal development and social engagement. Today, sport is even seen as a tool for maintaining good physical shape, improving mental well-being and building social relationships. (1)

Although the offer of sporting activities is greater than ever for older adults, the dominant discourse still emphasizes the need to take part in recreational sports, rather than competition, performance or victory. Some age-related stereotypes still persist, and we are more concerned with the risk of falls and injury in older athletes than with their performance.(1; 2)

And yet, several sports federations at the provincial, national and international levels organize competitions for older athletes (also referred as "veterans" or "masters"). One notable example is the “World Masters Games”, the largest multi-sport event welcoming up to 30,000 athletes every four years. This event dedicated to older athletes has experienced an explosive growth since its first event in 1985. Nearly 30 team and individual sports are offered at this event, including weightlifting, track and field, tennis, basketball, swimming, field hockey and rugby. Not to mention the "Winter World Masters Games", which typically include winter sports such as ice hockey, curling and cross-country skiing.(3)

Given this growing interest, what is known about the factors influencing older athletes to take part in competitive sports?

What research tells us

A recent systematic review of 69 studies looked at older adults (aged 50 and over) who participate in competitive sports.(1) The studies looked at a wide variety of sports such as athletics, swimming, cycling, triathlon, tennis, basketball, and hockey.

Research has shown that there are four types of factors that influence the participation of older athletes in competitive sports:

1. Personal factors

Contrary to popular belief that older adults who participate in sport only do it for recreational purposes, older athletes who participate in sporting events appear to have a strong competitive spirit. In fact, this personality trait seems to encourage them to train more to beat their personal bests while comparing themselves to other people of the same age.

In addition, competitive sports provides them with increased general well-being, greater endurance in the face of pain, better acceptance of aging, a feeling of autonomy and pleasure, while reducing anxiety and depression.

2. Interpersonal factors

The "entourage" of older athletes - that is, family, friends, teammates and coaches - has a great deal of importance in their desire to participate in competitive sports. They are proud of their athlete status and the recognition they get. They also enjoy being a role model for children and youth, as well as playing sports with members of their family.

Sporting events are also an opportunity to strengthen social bonds with other athletes, not only during competition, but also during training. Friendships that are forged through participation in sport encourage the pursuit of this activity.

3. Environmental and community factors

Beyond socialization and friendship, participation in competitive sports strengthens a sense of belonging to a group or community. It should also be noted, however, that the environment in which older athletes live can facilitate or hinder their participation in competitive sports, including the availability and access to facilities, and the costs associated with a specific sport.

4. Factors related to existing policies

Studies show that older athletes are not a priority group in policies adopted by sports federations and governments, which typically focus on the development of young athletes to achieve peak performance. The authors of the review therefore highlight the importance of developing policies that encourage, support and develop older athletes.

 

A healthy dose of competition ...

Whether you are a recreational or competitive athlete, whether you have done it before or not, the benefits of being active are undeniable!

Choose carefully: There is a sport adapted to your situation, your age, your health status, and your personal preferences.

Talk to your health professional to make sure a sport is or is not appropriate for your condition.

If you want to compete, surround yourself with professionals (and loved ones) to help you prepare physically and mentally, and to achieve your goals.

Check the websites of provincial, national and international sports federations to learn more about the support offered to older athletes, or upcoming competitions near you.

And of course, have fun!

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Author Details

References

  1. Cannella V, Villar F, Serrat R, Tulle E. Psychosocial aspects of participation in competitive sports among older athletes: A scoping review. Gerontologist. 2021, doi: 10.1093/geront/gnab083.
  2. Horton, S. Dionigi, R. A., Gard, M., Baker, J., Weir, P. “Don’t sit back with the geraniums, get out”: The complexity of older women’s stories of sport participation. Journal of Amateur Sport, 2018, 4(1): 24-51.
  3. Deneau J, Dionigi R, Horton S. The benefits of masters sport to healthy aging, Sport Information Resource Centre, March 31, 2020.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of these blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations such as social distancing and frequent hand washing. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with current social distancing recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.

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