Sports Give Seniors a Zest for Life

Tens of thousands of older athletes are ramping up their commitment to fitness as they age. The best sports for retirees involve fun, friends and good exercise.

Three senior male soccer players celebrating
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It was the last game of the three-day ultimate Masters national championship in Denver last summer. Wayne Tang, a 55-year-old attorney in Chicago, looked around at his teammates, many of whom he had known for 15 or 20 years. Somehow, they had managed to keep playing Frisbee through the pandemic, maintaining their social connections and their fitness. "This was literally the only [extended period of ] time I could think of over the last few years that I was able to spend with a bunch of old friends doing something we all loved," Tang recalls. "Time with your peers is a very limited commodity as you get older."

Tang is one of tens of thousands of older athletes who are ramping up their commitment to sports and fitness as they age. Besides the physical and mental health benefits of exercise, these seniors also tout the relationships, sense of belonging and camaraderie associated with playing sports. For example, the biennial National Senior Games draw about 14,000 competitors, ages 50 to 100, in the largest qualified multisport competition, formerly known as the Senior Olympics. Participants compete at events around the country.

But seniors don't have to be part of the games to play a sport, and many older adults are playing more than the stereotypical retirement sports of golf, pickleball and bocce ball. Seniors are swimming, cycling, rowing and running competitively and playing everything from tennis, volleyball and softball to basketball and soccer -- all have a dedicated seniors or masters league open to anyone.

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No matter your skill level, you can find a suitable activity, one that fits your budget and can be adjusted to the changing needs of an older body. Most people just want to keep active and stay healthy, says Ray Glier, Atlanta-based publisher of the Geezer Jock newsletter. "The words I hear are fun, fitness and friends. It's a matter of what kind of quality of life do you want to have?"

Reasons to Keep Playing

Where earlier generations might have retired to a rocking chair on the front porch, today's retirees feel no such limitations, especially when the payoffs of athleticism are so readily apparent. Vigorous exercise for at least 90 minutes a week lowers your blood pressure and cholesterol, supports your good cholesterol, helps maintain bone density and improves your flexibility, medical research shows.

Senior Games athletes, for example, not only get twice as much physical activity as the general population but are also less likely to fall. "This carries over into activities of daily living," says Andrew Walker, health and well-being director of the National Senior Games Association, the nonprofit organization behind the eponymous event. Only 10% of Senior Games participants reported falling in the previous year, compared with 35% to 40% in the general population, he says. "The stronger the joints are, the more stability you have." Strong muscles and a flexible body protect seniors from other injuries and support range of motion, helping people live independently longer.

Other benefits are harder to quantify but matter just as much. James Nathanson, 89, believes the thrill of competition has helped him thrive. He continued sailing and playing tennis into his 80s because he loves to compete. "It's one of the reasons I think I've lived as long as I have," says Nathanson, a former lawyer and educator based in Washington, D.C. Sailing has been his true love since childhood when he learned to sail on Quincy Bay in Massachusetts.

Nathanson, who also plays tennis, appreciates the social side of sports and believes these friendships help keep him vital and engaged with life. "Exercise and physical activity have a positive effect on our mood," notes Caroline M. Brackette, an Atlanta-based licensed professional counselor and professor at Mercer University. The social relationships, she says, "fill a need for connection and belonging."

Team camaraderie encouraged Vicky Shu to return to swimming, which she burned out on in college. Shu, a 53-year-old nonprofit fundraiser in Oakland, Calif., joined a masters club that includes adults of all ages. "It's been great to meet other women my age going through similar changes in their bodies, like menopause, and talk about how they deal with it," she says. Because Shu swims distance and butterfly, two demanding events, she's routinely approached by swimmers in their 20s and 30s telling her that she inspires them with her commitment. Knowing that she's a role model helps her stay motivated.

Levels of Competition

Whether you're a swimmer like Shu or a sailing enthusiast like Nathanson, the activity you choose should suit your personality and temperament, Brackette says. Social butterflies may prefer a team sport like football or softball. If you like to beat your own best time, try an individual sport like rowing or swimming. People in the middle might want a partner or a sport with a small team, such as badminton or doubles tennis.

Most sports offer different levels of competition, from casual games to recreational leagues to teams with a paid coach. For example, "track and field offers something for almost anyone: running long or fast, throwing, jumping. Masters track and field embraces every skill level," says Amanda Scotti, executive committee officer for USA Track & Field, which defines masters as over age 35. Half of USA Track & Field athletes are in their 50s and 60s.

Think about whether you want to play with and compete against people your own age or of all ages. Nathanson says it keeps him young to compete against sailors and tennis players who are three or four decades younger than he is.

Possibly the most important consideration is avoiding injury. Check your ego when it comes to keeping up with 20-somethings, Glier says. That includes competing with your times from a younger age, adds Shu. "Don't try to be your younger self, fitness-wise, if you were an athlete. There is just no way that I will beat my times from high school, and that is OK," she says. "However, I can work to get as close to it as possible."

If you're resuming exercise after a hiatus, take it slow. "Allow yourself to under-train, and be patient. Learn smart techniques, listen to your body, talk to your peers for help and advice," suggests Scotti. She recommends finding a coach skilled at training older athletes. "Be sure they understand your fitness level, possible goals and are, No. 1, a good listener."

A lower level of intensity will help you stay active. Incorporate rest days into your training schedule and change up your exercises. Cross-training, strength exercises and stretching help prevent injuries at any age but may be especially important for older athletes. "As we age, our bodies are constantly changing," Shu says. "We need to pay attention to those changes so that we can do what we love for a very long time."

The Cost for Seniors to Play Sports

Generally, the more serious you are about a sport, the more you'll spend on equipment, clothing, and training or competition fees. You could self-organize with a group of volunteers or join a team with a paid coach. Other costs include your personal equipment, space for practices, league and club fees, tournaments, and travel expenses if you compete nationally. Sports like power walking and tennis can cost less than $100, whereas cyclists and archers often drop thousands on gear alone. Nathanson, the lifelong sailor, spent about $10,000 to buy his boat. Yacht club memberships, repairs and event fees cost him about $1,000 per year.

Under Medicare, some expenses for staying fit may be covered, so check your plan. For example, Medicare Advantage and some supplemental Medicare plans reimburse gym membership as well as SilverSneakers and Silver & Fit fitness classes and online programs.

Your municipal or county government may provide recreation centers where you can play sports or work out for a low daily cost. Often, retirement communities have access to the best fields and courts, Glier says.

How to Stay Mentally and Physically Fit in Retirement

Whatever you spend, think of it as an investment that will likely pay off in the form of lower medical and hospitalization costs, says Walker, adding, with senior sports, "there are a lot of hidden economic benefits."

Contributing Writer, -

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning journalist, speaker and author of The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever – And What to Do About It. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Fortune, Medium, Mother Jones, The New York Times, Parents, Slate, USA Today, The Washington Post and Working Mother, among others. She's been an EWA Education Reporting Fellow, Fund for Investigative Journalism fellow and Logan Nonfiction Fellow at the Carey Institute for Global Good. Residencies include the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Ragdale. A Harvard physics graduate, Katherine previously worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse and Bloomberg News, covering everything from financial and media policy to the White House.