Masters of their own Destiny

Masters of their own Destiny 640 360 Geoff

Could participating in Masters sports be the ultimate in preventative medicine and anti-aging? Geoff Carter encourages us to find out.

Thursday 4th July 2013: Kim Collins a 37 year old sprinter from Saint Kitts and Nevis breaks the 10 second barrier in the 100m sprint. To run the 100m in less than 10 seconds requires extraordinary strength and power, and while this Caribbean sprinter may be a professional athlete, to achieve this feat at his age is nothing short of astonishing.

According to conventional wisdom, as we age our muscle mass will decline at an alarming rate, particularly our power producing fast-twitch fibres. From around age 25, our strength levels, balance, coordination and bone density will also gradually diminish. Our chances of succumbing to chronic disease significantly increase and we will lose confidence in our ability to do the things we enjoy. Our physical decline is accompanied by loss of mental acuity and self-confidence. If we choose not to resist, our skin will lose its tonicity, our six pack will spill over the tops of our jeans and we will gratefully flop onto the lounge every evening as we surrender to our daily fight with fatigue.

But not so for an ever increasing number of mature-aged Australians. Officially known as Masters athletes, these not so ordinary people are taking control of their long term health through their participation in an organised sport. Determined to maintain fitness, strength and their zest for life, they are taking matters into their own hands. They refuse to accept conventional wisdom. They are learning the skills and acquiring the knowledge that can help them turn back the clock without expensive medical intervention. They are becoming masters of their own destiny.

573224-ruthWhile much of maturing society passively laments their failing condition and looks for someone to blame, Masters athletes are zipping up the lycra and discovering just what their bodies and minds are capable of. Amazing feats of physical prowess and mental toughness are being played out across courts, fields, gyms, tracks, pools, beaches and ovals every night of the week and every weekend. In all corners of our country, the human spirit burns bright within a demographic that is all too often crushed under the weight of life and its responsibilities and the uncertainty that comes with a gradual decline in health.

“Masters sport” is a generic term that includes masters, veterans, golden oldies, myths, legends, older adult sport, seniors and mature age sport. On offer is organised and safe participation in a staggering array of different sports. Participants in those sports are collectively known as “Masters athletes”. Most sports have a State association structure, often a National structure and some an International organising body as well. Modifications are typically made to the sport to allow for a wider range of participants and to increase safety. Inclusion has nothing to do with ability – it is entirely based on minimum age qualification (for most sports this is 30 years but can differ from sport to sport). There is no maximum age limit. The level of participation is dependent only on your enthusiasm – from the very casual Saturday afternoon turn up when the weather is nice all the way up to international level competition. But be warned, a lot of Masters athletes eventually become bitten by the bug……..

A recent CSIRO report into the future of Australian sport has identified “mega trends” in the nation’s sporting life and found hectic work and family lives mean time-poor people can no longer commit to team training and games. However, it appears that Masters athletes are bucking this trend with Masters sport being one of the fastest growing sport categories in Australia and this growth is likely to continue. By 2021, 50% of Australians will be aged over 35 years. 2013 sees both the Australian Masters Games in Geelong, Victoria and the World Masters Games in Torino Italy. Torino has accepted 15,000 registrations for their games from every corner of the globe. Geelong will cater for nearly 10,000 competitors and will feature over 60 different sports. Two decades ago the Australian Sports Commission acknowledged that in light of an aging population, an investment in Masters Sports would be returned many times over in terms of quality of life and reduced health bills.

047076-20130226-tony-goodwinBut how does being a Masters athlete help you control your own destiny? How can participation in sport as you get older be such a powerful health strategy?

The answer is actually quite simple. When you participate in an organised sport, either as an individual or as part of a team, you reap significant benefits in three well recognised dimensions of health; mental, physical and social – the components of so called successful aging.

These dimensions are brought to life by what we experience as we age. Feeling vital and full of energy, having social relationships that are meaningful and that share a common interest, feeling a sense of control and purpose, having the capability to do the things we want to do in life and even having a sense of connection to the community and the environment. Sport can give you all this irrespective of your age, gender, fitness level or abilities. It might not be the only way to achieve these things but it sure is a fun way.

While these benefits might be available to anyone hiking through a National Park with their friends, it is the very concept of sport that can bring them to life for many others. Whether it’s the spirit of competition, the relentless pursuit of a new personal best or just turning up so that the team isn’t short, Masters athletes are to some extent driven, and it is this drive that influences their attitude to maintaining a sound body and mind.

I once asked a middle-aged male Masters sprinter why he travelled on some occasions for 3 hours to run in a race that was done and dusted in 12 seconds and then get back in the car and drive home again. His response was insightful. “because when the starter says “take your marks”, you have never felt more alive in your life. You are full of adrenaline, your heart is racing, the hours of training are on the line and you know that the guys standing in the lanes next to you are feeling exactly the same way. You’re not thinking of some missed deadline or forgotten birthday, you are completely focussed and present in the moment. And when the race is run, it doesn’t really matter who won, the elation of having done something that very few men my age can do is something very special”.

People who exercise generally declare a better quality of life than those who do not. Studies abound that prove that Masters athletes experience better health indicators than their sedentary counterparts – and by a statistically significant margin. By participating in sport, they present an image that is vital, active and strong – the exact opposite to the passive and dependent stereotype that we associate with aging. Coordination, balance and reaction skills are all enhanced through purposeful human movement. Exercise now has meaning.

Even if you have no intention of becoming a veteran world champion, an interest in an organised sport that boasts some level of competition cannot but have you wondering, even just a little bit, how your own performance might be improved.

And that is often where the magic begins.

master-athlete1What does an athlete do to improve their performance? They train and they become interested in nutrition. They actively seek information and knowledge and they use their brains to apply that information to themselves. They surround themselves with like-minded people who are positive and encouraging and they refuse to listen to those who would tell them they are wasting their time.

Participating in organised sport typically involves some degree of commitment to training for that sport and for most sports, improved performance will require an ever increasing level of cardiovascular fitness and strength. You now have a compelling reason to engage in regular structured strength and fitness training – both of which are vital to maintain a high level of overall health. This training might be organised for you if you are playing a team sport or you may even engage a coach to help you accelerate your progress if your pursuit is more of an individual one. And the best part – all this is achieved while having fun. Regular, vigorous exercise is not a chore, not a task that just needs to be done as it is for many others who grind away a few times a week on the treadmill hoping that their health will thank them. Exercise now has purpose and as a result it becomes integrated into your lifestyle, it becomes consistent.

To fuel their competitive pursuits, many Masters athletes review their nutrition practices in the search for greater energy levels or quicker recovery from training and competition. As we age and our wisdom grows, we feel liberated to challenge long-held beliefs and nutrition is one of those areas that once we explore, it can take on a life of its own. Every time we eat we influence our health in either a positive or negative way. While Australians are becoming more health conscious, we are not necessarily becoming more healthy. Given that our confidence in the healthcare system is declining, it doesn’t take long to figure out that finding ways to look after your own health through good nutrition is probably a pretty smart play.

The cognitive benefits of playing sport are just as powerful. Participating in organised sport helps us remain more interested and engaged with life. It can give our lives a greater sense of purpose and without question, it gives us something to look forward to on a regular basis. The very process of becoming involved in sport later in life, particularly if we haven’t been involved in our youth, may take an enormous amount of courage to overcome fear of injury or the perception of not “being good enough”. Breaking through this barrier in itself can contribute to self-esteem and self-confidence.

gymnastThe general benefits of exercise on our mental wellbeing are well published and understood. John Medina in his recent NY Times Bestseller, Brain Rules, says “all of the evidence points in one direction: Physical activity is cognitive candy”! He puts forward a compelling case that we evolved to the top of the food chain whilst always on the move and he leaves no doubt that exercise boots brain power. His research indicates that just twice weekly bouts of aerobic exercise halves your risk of general dementia and cuts your risk of Alzheimer’s by 60%. I would argue that participating in sport takes this brain boosting effect to the next level. Tactics, strategy, planning training progressions, seeking and applying information from countless sources to increase understanding and performance, trying to outwit an opponent or analyse a game keeps the mind fresh and interested. A whole set of new skills can be learned and refined over time. Get bored with one sport – move onto another. A keen Masters athlete will also have to face and conquer challenges and setbacks and they will grow through the sheer satisfaction of setting and achieving goals.

Many Masters report that the social side of their chosen sport of immense personal value to them. In 2012, a study titled “Promoting Successful Aging Through Competitive Sports Participation: Insights From Older Adults” highlighted this. Participants in this study agreed that social belonging and interactions with other competitors were of most importance. Dave, who played shuffleboard in the Senior Games, sought to build meaningful relationships with others. This, for him, was indicated as more important than having fun or keeping in shape. Across all sports, it was evident during the analysis of the interviews that developing camaraderie with the other participants was an important aspect of participating in the Senior Games. Participation for those in the study provided opportunities for interaction from around the country and created lasting friendships. Many adults returning to sport or taking it up for the first time are pleasantly surprised at just how welcoming and supportive the people in their chosen sports are.

The general concept behind Masters sport is to promote the “sports for all” philosophy of the Olympic Charter. Anyone of eligible age can choose from over 60 different sports that offer an organised sporting experience. No talent, skill or pre-requisite knowledge is necessary. The achievement of an occasional personal best or just doing it a little bit better each week is the driving force for most Masters athletes while the obsessed use their annual holidays to travel internationally and compete on the world stage. Yes, that’s right, Masters athletes can have the honour of representing their country and competing as part of an international team and everyone is welcome. There are centenarians still donning the green and gold tracksuit.

master_athletes_500_0Is engaging in Masters sport the ultimate in preventative medicine? Despite the ever present spectre of sizable physiotherapy bills, it is hard to dispute that any activity that encourages a sustainable and meaningful focus on maintaining a sound body and mind will benefit both the participant and the community over the long term. For many Masters athletes their health becomes their purpose and they find ways to look after it, not only so that it will deliver another personal best, but so that it will do so for decades to come.

Whether you are a first time participant in organised sport or if you are someone who played a high level of sport in years gone by and have always harboured the desire to have another crack at it, you have little to lose and lot to gain by giving a Masters sport a go.

Note: To participate in Masters sports, search online using the name of your sport and the terms “master’s sports” and your State or contact the author for more information. Most sports have local, State, National and even international associations and organising bodies usually run by very enthusiastic volunteers.