Senior Athletes Are Doing the Unprecedented, And They Are Ready For More
Why this matters
Forget Tom Brady or Phil Mickelson. Across the U.S., older people continue to reach new athletic heights by taking advantage of scientific developments, new information, and an admirable drive to keep moving.
Kay Glynn woke up one January morning at her home in southwest Missouri, and it was 18 degrees. She was still going to practice pole vaulting, high jumping, and long jumping that day, but she took her time getting to the jumping pits in her “she-shed,” which does not have heat.
Glynn was reasonable and waited until noon – when it was 27 degrees. She layered on her clothing and walked out to the 100-foot-long metal facility for her two-hour daily workout.
“I went out there and found the water bottle I left the day before,” Glynn says. “It was frozen.”
What’s more remarkable than Glynn’s willpower in working out in freezing weather is that she is 69 years old, has eight grandchildren, and pole vaults, long jumps, and high jumps. She competes all over the country in USA Track & Field Masters events, state Senior Olympics, the National Senior Games, and other assorted events. She has held world masters records indoors and outdoors for the pole vault.
“When I started back into athletics, about 15 years ago, I just did it because someone said it’s fun,” Glynn says. “Now, I go out in that cold because I know I’m going to feel better when I get done. I know I can’t stop because then I’ll just start to age, and that’s like, painful.
“There will be aches and pains if I don’t do something physical every day.”
Glynn is part of a small but growing number of older, stubborn Americans who are not just exercising more but also competing with each other in track meets, swim meets, pickleball tournaments, softball tournaments, and so much more. Using – and pushing – their aging bodies, they are not peeking out of the window blinds, as the stereotype goes, but rather opening windows to previously unexplored possibilities.
All 50 states have Senior Games or Senior Olympics that feed into the National Senior Games. In 2015, 9,989 athletes age 50 and older competed in the games in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota. Four years later, the number of competitors in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had swelled to 13,882. (The games were canceled the past two years because of the coronavirus pandemic.)
According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, the number of people 65 years and older going to health clubs has increased 34 percent since 2010. A 2020 study from the Journal of Medical Internet Research that used exercise app tracking data for 5,300 people found that exercise habits of young to middle-aged people declined during the pandemic – while those of people 65 and older ramped up.
Chris Craytor, vice-chairman of the IHRSA board and president/COO for ACAC Fitness & Wellness Centers in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, says that older Americans today are finding much more research about the benefits of exercise than previous generations. And they are putting that knowledge to work.
“You go back 50 years and some people were scared of exercise as they got older,” Craytor says. “Now it is a focus for older people, and there are many more options to stay active at any age.”
Many of these older athletes are as hardy as Glynn and do not view their later-life athletic pursuits as unrealistic. Mike Devaney, a 71-year-old former casino executive, has won gold medals in race walking in all but one state (Illinois). He is following his muse in one car with 249,000 miles on the odometer and another car with 142,000 miles.
“You mean because I’m older I’m supposed to stay home and rot?” he says. “And then die wondering what I could have done? That’s not me.”
In some ways, the movement among older athletes such as Devaney is all about … movement.
“We need as a society to believe more that aging is an opportunity to be grasped, that to get into your 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s you can do just about anything in life if you maintain your functional ability,” says Dan Ritchie, PhD, president of the Functional Aging Institute. “We’ve got to communicate as a society the importance of moving – and think of it as an investment.”
Phil Shipp, 86, of Sedona, Arizona, made an investment in fitness, and he is convinced he beat a rare disease five years ago because he was so healthy. When polyarteritis nodosa (PAN) attacked his intestinal tract, it didn’t find a frail 81-year-old. It found a man who has been competing in the decathlon since his 60s.
Last summer, Shipp did the decathlon’s 10 events in two days in the USA Track & Field Masters meet, where he won a gold medal.
Glynn made an investment, too. She has had both of her hips “resurfaced,” a less common procedure than the standard hip replacement, and she is certain that doing so has kept her flexible for her jumping events.
Dr. Thomas Gross of Columbia, S.C., has resurfaced more than 7,000 hips, including Glynn’s, and insists that resurfaced hips are way more functional than replaced ones. The average age of his patients is 52, but he did one of Glynn’s hips when she was 63 and did a resurfacing a year ago on an 80-year-old marathoner.
“People can walk on the beach and play golf and play doubles tennis with a total hip (replacement), but they struggle when they play vigorous sports,” Gross says. “People can do full-out athletics with resurfacing, like Kay Glynn with her pole vaulting.”
Gross’ procedure is just another way today’s senior athletes are disrupting traditional notions of growing older and what that means for playing and competing. Evangelists like Glynn are urging others to surrender nothing to age.
“We don’t want to be fixed up so we can sit in a rocking chair or just walk,” says Glynn, who had first-place finishes in the pole vault, long jump, triple jump, and pentathlon in the 2021 USA Track & Field Masters meet in Ames, Iowa. “When I go to the doctor, I take a picture of something I do, like pole vaulting. And I tell them ‘this is normal for me.’ They start to treat you like an athlete and not a senior citizen.”
While older athletes are blazing new trails, most are not starting entirely from scratch. Michael Sachs, a professor emeritus at Temple University with expertise in exercise and sports psychology, says that many are reheating fitness regimens they first learned decades ago – and recultivating the competitive mindsets to match.
“Aerobics with Ken Cooper took off in 1968, and then there was the running boom of the 1970s, and what you are seeing is people that were physically active in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, who maybe let their conditioning slide, are getting back into it,” Sachs says. “They are listening to the science and remembering what they learned way back.”
Sachs, 70, says that another factor in the rise of the older jock are initiatives such as Exercise is Medicine from the American College of Sports Medicine, which urges doctors to give physical activity assessment and counseling to older patients.
Local gyms are reasonably priced, Sachs says, and after the pep talks from their doctors, Baby Boomers – the generation born between 1946 and 1964 – have both the willingness and the necessary disposable income to spend on their physical fitness.
Craytor says that the coronavirus pandemic also has given older people more motivation to stay fit. Even before COVID-19, however, ACAC was getting 7,000 senior referrals a year from doctors to its six gyms.
Ritchie cautions that people such as Glynn and Devaney remain very much the exception among older Americans. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report that found 31 million Americans (28%) age 50 and older were inactive.
“I don’t think we have seen a big shift where we say, ‘Oh, my goodness, the older population is becoming super fit,’” Richie says. “I still think the statistics overwhelmingly support this idea that people over 55, 60, 65 are woefully inactive.”
Ritchie also worries about the physical effects of the pandemic on people in their 70s and 80s. They were told to stay home and stay safe. Most did. “We’re anticipating them coming out of the [pandemic] in worse shape,” Ritchie said. “I don’t think we have ever seen the uptick in frailty that is coming to people in their 70s.”
Frailty is not a concern for Don Leis. Though his gym has been closed during the pandemic, he has been doing jumping jacks and other old-school calisthenics every morning in the living room of his Pasadena, California, home. Leis plans to enter five events at the National Senior Games in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in May – when he will be 90 years old.
Back in Missouri, Glynn continues to train. She is not trying to decode or solve old age. Like many of her peers, she simply wants to feel good, and she has learned that play and exercise continue to deliver.
“When we seniors get done working out, we will never say, ‘I wish I hadn't done that,’" Glynn said. “We always feel better – maybe more physically tired – but we never regret working out.”
Sport & the Body
The body is the most fundamental component of sport, capable of unthinkable feats and requiring considerable care. Athletes continually push their bodies to the brink in order to excel at their craft, and the 21st century has brought about a reimagining of the limits of physical ability.
Yet as the world of sport intensifies its focus on the body, athletes are demanding better care, more freedom, and increased flexibility around how they maintain and shape theirs.