Masters athletes can teach aging population a thing or two

Masters athletes, those 35 and older who pursue athletic pursuits usually at a high level, may provide clues to healthy aging in the general population, says Joseph Baker, a professor in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science in York’s Faculty of Health.

Baker, co-editor of the recently published book The Masters Athlete: Understanding the Role of Sport and Exercise in Optimizing Aging (Routledge, 2009) and president of the Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology, believes masters athletes can teach the general population a lot about aging well.

The book takes a multi-disciplinary look at masters athletes and their ability to maintain cognitive and physical functioning as they age. “It deconstructs the negative attitude many have about the aging population and offers some positive feedback on this group,” says Baker. “The performance of these masters athletes is continuing to shatter the assumptions about older people.”

Baker points to masters athlete Ed Whitlock of Milton, Ontario, who ran a marathon in under three hours at the age of 72 in 2003, roughly the same time as the fastest person to run a marathon in 1896, over 100 years earlier. Getting older doesn’t automatically mean people will be significantly less capable physically.

"It’s important to get people to re-examine their outlook on aging,” says Baker. “We thought about what we wanted our ultimate message from the book to be and it was that continual engagement in challenging activities like physical activity and sport is extremely important for aging well.”

The Masters Athlete not only examines the evidence that cognitive skills, motor skills and physiological capabilities can be maintained at a high level with advancing age, but that age-related decline is slowed in athletes who continue to train and compete in their later years.

People don’t have to be masters athletes to benefit from continued physical fitness and participation in sports at an advanced age. “The benefits are clear for any aging person,” says Baker. “But somewhere along the line we buy into this view that we’re getting older and we should slow down.”

It was Baker’s research into motor skill maintenance in sports that led him to look at the physical capabilities of aging adults. It goes back to the old saying, "Use it or lose it." Baker points to golfer Tom Watson, who nearly won the 2009 Open Championship at the age of 59. He would have been the oldest to do so.

Left: Joseph Baker

The book starts with a chapter on the emergence of masters sport and its historical development and goes on to look at age trends in masters athletes as well as peak exercise performance, muscle strength and power.

Leading international experts in physiology, motor behaviour, psychology, gerontology and medicine have contributed to the book and explore key issues such as motivation for involvement in sport and physical activity across the lifespan; evidence of lower incidences of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes; the maintenance of performance with age; masters sport as a strategy for managing the aging process; and the role physical activity plays in achieving successful aging.

It also delves into aging and recovery, masters athletes as role models and injury epidemiology, health and performance in masters athletes. The final chapter of The Masters Athlete looks at the future of masters games and their implications for policy and research.

As Baker says, “This is no trivial issue.” Just look at the popularity of the World Masters Games – the largest participatory multi-sport event in the world with over 30,000 competitors in 28 sports. The next World Masters Games take place in Sydney, Australia, in October. The event is bigger even than the Olympics, but it receives little media attention.

Baker, co-author of “Physical Activity and Successful Aging in Canadian Older Adults,” published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity in April, wants to get people involved and enthusiastic about discussing the issue of aging and maintaining physical fitness and cognitive skills. He is also co-editor of the book Developing Sport Expertise: Researchers and Coaches Put Theory into Practice (Routledge, 2007).

It’s time to do away with the myth that aging means inactivity, says Baker.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer