Chapter 17: Masters of the Universe

Never mind crowded doctor’s offices; what about crowded rinks?

My personal approach to moving my butt has always been more functional than passionate. In my 20s and 30s, I played squash pretty often and intensely; before that I pitched windmill fastball in a Montreal little league. But I considered the primary benefit of sports to be the exercise, as opposed to the challenge of competing or the thrill of winning. So, when my knees began telling me that chasing a little rubber ball in an echoing white room was no longer such a good idea, I switched without regret to getting my exercise through regular, vigorous walking, plus getaways to places that offered serious guided hiking, usually in mountainous terrain. Aside from the no-food fast I would throw in with the week of trekking (sounds extreme, I know, but it sure peels off the pounds in a hurry), I thought that the evolution of my recreational preferences – swapping competitive sports for simpler energetic activities – was pretty typical for our generation of maturing adults. A growing number of us, however, are opting for a radically different path. This change in athletic approach is a prime example of how our vast and idiosyncratic demographic is changing what it means to grow older in relation to the physical life.

The past two decades – particularly the last 10 years – have seen an explosion in the popularity of Masters – or Veteran – Athletics. Technically, anyone over the age of 35 can be classed as a Masters Athlete (competition is grouped in five year intervals: 35 to 39, 40 to 44, all the way up to 90 to 94 and even 95 to 99 and 100-plus for some events). But the recent surge has been concentrated in age groups above 55, with heavy concentration in the 60-plus demographic, which coincides precisely with the arrival of Baby Boomers to those groups.1 The greatest number of competitors at indoor World Masters Athletics events are between the ages of 55 and 65 with, by far, the most populous age bracket being the 60 to 64 group. “Twenty years ago,” says Brian Keaveney, vice-president of WMA, “the largest groups would have been younger, in their 50s at most.” The change is partly due to demographics, partly to the exploding of myths about aging individuals and competitive sports.

Twenty years ago, the majority of 60-year-olds wouldn’t have considered pole vaulting or running a 100-metre dash, probably out of fear of injury, or because of doctor’s advice. But in the interim, studies have shown conclusively that older athletes live longer, stay healthier and remain able to compete longer. At the Masters level, they’re also more seriously committed. “A younger Masters Athlete will get involved for participation’s sake,” says Keaveney. “The 60-year-olds are in it for the long run and tend to be after records.”

It’s when you examine those records that the situation reveals itself to be even more remarkable. Almost without exception, the times and distances associated with the most recent world records established by Masters Athletes in the 60 to 64 age category are virtually the same as the times and distances achieved by athletes in their mid-20s 115 years ago – at the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens, Greece, in 1896.

In Athens, for instance, 20-something Tom Burke of the U.S. won the gold in the 100 metres in 12.0 seconds; today, the 60 to 65 record in the 100 metres is held by Ron Taylor of Great Britain: 11.7 seconds. The 800-metre race in Athens was won by Australia’s Teddy Flack in 2:11; the 60 to 65 record today belongs to another Aussie, Alan Bradford, at 2:10.42 (the 65 to 70 record, 2:14.33, is held by Canada’s own Earl Fee). In 1896, a young American, Ellery Clark, high jumped his way to a gold medal at 1.81 metres; today, the 60 to 65 record is held by German Thomas Zachara: 1.84 metres. The marathon at the inaugural Olympics was won, fittingly, by a Greek runner, Spiridon Louis, in 2:58:50; just over a century later, Canada’s legendary Ed Whitlock set the 70 to 75 marathon record, 2:54:48. (Three years later he set the 75 to 80 record, 3:04:54, a time which would have earned him a bronze medal at the 1896 Olympics.)

Far from being indifferent to comparisons with their younger counterparts, Elite Older Athletes today use “age-grading,” a set of formulas that, like a golf handicap, converts their results to what would be analogous figures for top athletes in their 20s. A major aim of Masters Athletes is to try to get the maximum age-graded result for their age group. Now, it might seem unsporting to compare young, genuinely amateur athletes of more than a century ago with older world-class athletes today, given the advances we’ve seen in nutrition and training regimens. But, in their defence, the 1896 Olympians were truly Olympian compared to even the fittest

60-year-olds of their day. Today, this is not the case. The most significant comparison isn’t the difference between us and them but us and us: what our Zoomer demographic was athletically capable of 100 years ago and what we’re doing today.

These results are doubly stunning because of another widely held misconception about aging: the idea that most of the negative changes we see in the physical performance of older people are in fact age-related. But a least two studies focused on older athletes in the past 10 years have shown that “performance losses in middle age are mainly due to a sedentary lifestyle, rather than biological aging.” The decline these surveys did find among older athletes as they got even older was moderate, not dramatic. One German study, done in 2010, which examined marathon participants from ages 20 to 79, reported that “25 per cent of the 65- to 69-year-old runners were faster than 50 per cent of the 20- to 54-year-old runners.”2 This despite the fact that roughly a quarter of the oldest runners had only taken up marathon running in their 60s.

What about those of us who aren’t budding marathoners? Zoomers who participate in Masters’ competitive sports, while their numbers are growing, are just the tip of a larger pyramid. The much larger base is the record number of older adults who today are turning to vigorous recreational activities to an extent that no previous aging demographic ever has. Health-club memberships among the 55-plus group, for instance, have recently “exploded,” according to Colin Miner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging. Between 1990 and today, the number of such memberships has risen by roughly 400 per cent. Baby-Boomer participation in outdoor recreational activities is even more dramatic. According to reports from outdoor industry sources, the two largest segments of North Americans who take part in outdoor recreation today are the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. The Boomers gravitate toward hiking, biking, fishing, canoeing, camping and golf; the Millennials favour skateboarding, snowboarding and bouldering. The preferences seem logical. What’s surprising is that the generation between us and the kids – Gen X – has become the sedentary casualty in the mix.

The revival of recreational exercise among today’s older adults – or, in some cases, the discovery of it by people who haven’t had the time or inclination to be active until they’ve gotten older – takes on local quirks depending on where you happen to be. In England, where traditional forms of exercise like gardening, walking the dog and even bicycling have become increasingly the province of older people, studies have found that the average pensioner is significantly more active on a daily basis than the average young person.(3) In the U.S., where gardening takes a back seat to the internal combustion engine, Baby Boomers have become the fastest growing portion of the American motorcycle-riding population. The attraction may be more rock ‘n’ roll than recreation, but motorcycling is definitely outdoorsy, and somewhat physically demanding. According to Time magazine, “Nearly a third of Harley-Davidson riders are now 50 or older.”

This being Canada, there’s no better place to look to see the rise of Zoomer participation than your local hockey arena. Over the past few years, the availability of ice time across the country has become a hot-button issue, first with girls’ and women’s hockey leagues demanding their fair share of the available slots (and they don’t mean 6 a.m. Saturday morning) and, lately, with the new presence of senior hockey. Adult games, pick-up and league, are now so popular that in larger metropolitan areas the arenas are at capacity. An ever-growing number of the men – and women – playing in these games are age 50, 60 and beyond.

Recently, an essay appeared in the Globe and Mail called “The Vet on Skates,” by a 63-year-old named Rick Haliechuk who plays hockey twice a week. In one game, he’s the “oldest player on [his] team by at least 20 years.” In another, he’s “one of the younger players.” I’m glad he’s still playing because it gives me – it gives us – another choice response to the people who won’t stop complaining about the dreaded tsunami of frailty and cost that we represent, the burden our generation will become in the not-too-distant future: “Never mind worrying about crowded doctors’ waiting rooms,” I’d like to tell them. “Start worrying about crowded rinks.”

1 and 2. Deutsches Ärzteblatt International 2010 Nov;107(46):809-16. 3. The most detailed of these studies, commissioned by the BBC, was based on the National Survey of Time Use and conducted by the British Office for National
Statistics in 2002.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.