The terms “aging” and “athlete” almost seem like opposites. Sports and athletics are typically considered to be a young person’s game. Many of the recommendations around exercise for older adults focus on improving basic daily activities and reducing fall risk. This is clearly important for many older adults, however many aging adults still want to participate in sports and identify as athletes.
Here we’ll look at a few common myths that hold back the aging athlete (also known as masters athletes).
- Aging athletes can’t improve their body composition (i.e. build muscle and lose fat)
A major concern in older adults is the development of sarcopenia, a loss in muscle mass. It is related to strength loss, disability, and morbidity in older adults (1). Starting around age 60, muscle mass decreases by up to 1.4 % per year. However, resistance training can slow this trend and for those who haven’t resistance trained before, they can actually build muscle mass (1). It must be stated, that an older athlete, likely will not build as much muscle mass as their younger self and it will happen more slowly. For example, a 40 year old male golfer will likely build more muscle mass, more quickly than the same golfer at age 80.
With regards to fat loss, research also demonstrates that the elderly can effectively decrease body fat levels (2). That being said, this should be monitored to ensure that as weight is lost, there is not a significant loss in muscle mass, since there is already a tendency towards muscle loss.
2.Aging athletes can’t build muscle strength
In sports, strength training is crucial for performance and reduction of injury risk (3). Similar to muscle mass, strength and power tend to decrease with age. It is estimated that strength decreases by up to 3.6 % per year, starting around age 60. Fortunately, research shows that masters athletes can still improve muscle strength and power. Even adults over 80 years old have shown the ability to get stronger (1). Still overall, the elderly athlete likely develops muscle strength and power at a slower rate and to a lesser extent than their younger counterparts. For example, a 30 year old female sprinter will likely develop more strength, at a faster rate than the same woman at age 70.
3. Aging athletes should only lift light weights
Due to fear of injury, many believe that older adults should only lift light weights, because lifting heavy weights is inherently dangerous. However, there is actually little evidence to support this claim. In a study examining powerlifters (who tend to use lift relatively heavy loads), there was no connection found between lifting loads greater than 85% of 1 repetition maximum (1 RM) and increased injury risk (4).
In fact, the National Strength and Conditioning Association actually recommends that older adults lift weights at a level of 70-85% of their 1 RM, because heavy loads tend to improve activation of type II muscle fibers, which help express maximal strength and power. Interestingly, lighter and moderate weights seem just as effective for building and preserving muscle mass.
Overall, older athletes can improve body composition, build muscle strength and power, and safely lift heavy weights. Of course, like with an athlete of ANY age, a training program should be tailored to their specific goals, values, training history, and medical history. Aging and athletics can go hand in hand – in the future we’ll look at more specific training considerations for masters athletes.
- Fragala MS, Cadore EL, Dorgo S, et al. Resistance Training for Older Adults: Position Statement From the National Strength and Conditioning Association. J Strength Cond Res. 2019;33(8):2019-2052. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000003230 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31343601/
- Tayrose GA, Beutel BG, Cardone DA, Sherman OH. The Masters Athlete: A Review of Current Exercise and Treatment Recommendations. Sports Health. 2015;7(3):270-276. doi:10.1177/1941738114548999 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4482301/
- Lauersen JB, Andersen TE, Andersen LB. Strength training as superior, dose-dependent and safe prevention of acute and overuse sports injuries: a systematic review, qualitative analysis and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2018;52(24):1557-1563. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2018-099078 https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/52/24/1557