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What Olympians and Older Adults Have in Common

When it comes to exercise training and functional performance, we can all benefit by thinking like elite athletes

By Gareth Jones, PhD, CSEP-CEP

Every two years we are treated to the spectacle of the Olympic Games. However, few of you may have considered the parallels between youthful athletic performance and the physical demands older adults must conquer each day in order to remain functionally independent. Aging imposes many indignities, of which loss of one’s functional abilities is paramount, especially when you add chronic disease and disability to the aging mix. For many older adults, simple actives of daily living become physically demanding, requiring exertion of up to 80% to 100% of one’s physiological capacity. Many of us take for granted the effort it requires older adults to complete daily tasks. Hence it becomes more difficult to rise from a chair, complete simple housecleaning tasks, and almost impossible to climb stairs without becoming winded. With such a compromised physical capacity, many older adults must perform like Olympians on a daily basis, working at their maximal capacity just to remain independent. This assumption might seem a little extreme to some but not far from the truth for others.


Few would argue the importance of physical activity for the prevention of disease and the maintenance of good health. However, current evidence suggests that daily physical activity recommendations may not be enough to address the myriad of complex health conditions (e.g., obesity, frailty) associated with aging and inactivity. The scientific evidence is clear: In order for our bodies to keep working the way we want them to, then we need to exercise at moderate to vigorous intensities (work hard) for no less than 30 minutes per day, with a goal of achieving 60 to 90 minutes per day. Why so much?


The fact is that as our contemporary society continues to evolve, convenience continues to actually factor out physical activity. Technology has created many rewards, but the cost of making our lives easier and alleviating our bodies from physical tasks that they were designed to do might actually be at the cost of our health. Arguably, in a modern society where the automobile, cell phone, and social virtual networks are the norm, it becomes increasingly more difficult to use our bodies in the way they were intended to. We no longer have to walk over and talk to someone when it’s much easier to send a text message. Physical activity (walking, household chores, laborious work) are all on the decline, and physical inactivity (screen time, automobile travel, less active jobs) are all on the increase. These changes in our physical activity habits and our poor dietary choices provide the fuel for the obesity epidemic observed in young and old throughout North American society. Today, we can’t get enough physical activity, making it next to impossible to achieve what is known to be necessary for preventing disease and maintaining health and functional independence.


As our population demographics continue to evolve toward a more mature society, there will inevitably be a progressive reduction in physical activity—or at least we will have factored it out of our life. Therefore, consider that “exercise” now comes of age.

Exercise is considered a subcomponent of physical activity, that is, defined as being structured physical activity that requires repetitive  movement of large muscle groups that is performed at an intensity and duration that engenders a meaningful fitness benefit (i.e., improves cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular strength, body composition, flexibility, and balance).  If we were to plan exercise into our daily routine then we wouldn’t have to be so concerned about how much physical activity we’ve accumulated at the end of a day. Like daily hygiene, exercise would become an essential activity of daily living. It must, if we are to age well. So how much do you need to do?


An assessment of all research related to exercise and physical activity requirements for older adults were recently completed by Paterson and Warburton. If one participates in structured exercise at moderate to vigorous intensity (somewhat hard, challenging) for more than 10 minutes each session for a total of 3 hours per week, this recipe will reduce one’s risk of becoming dependent in later life by 30-60%, depending on how hard you want to challenge yourself. Much like an Olympic athlete, you need to adopt a daily exercise training regime that includes both aerobic exercise (3 times per week) and resistance (lifting weights) exercise (2 times per week).  Many older adults have already followed this recipe for maintaining independence and some have taken it to extreme levels, enough so that they can compete at the elite level against much younger athletes, even at the Olympic Games.


It’s true, older adults competing at the Olympic Games has been a reality since 1908 when at age 60, Oscar Swahn won his first gold medal in shooting. He later participated in subsequent Olympics (1912, 1920) becoming the oldest athlete and oldest medalist at 72 years of age. But, that was then, what about now?


Consider Ian Miller winning a silver medal at age 62 at the last summer Olympics. The average age of Olympic athletes continues to increase with each Olympics Games as training methods improve and financial resources are readily available to keep them on top of their game. Beyond the Olympics, participation and competition in master’s (middle age to older adults) athletic events is flourishing for both winter and summer sports. Older adults are breaking down aging stereotypes and setting new limits on what older persons can use their bodies to accomplish, whether that be running marathons or simply staying independent at home.


Aging adults must think like Olympians every day, at least on a relative level when it comes to daily exercise to improve fitness and mitigate the effects of chronic disease. When exercising, older adults should pick up the pace (Citius), set higher goals (Altius), and get stronger (Fortius). If older adults were to adopt these Olympian values, aging may become a positive life experience rather than one that is often associated with decline. As our contemporary society becomes older and less active, exercise truly comes of age as a means to lessen dependency and improve our chances of aging successfully.


Gareth Jones, PhD, CSEP-CEP, is assistant professor, Human Kinetics, Faculty of Health and Social Development, at UBC Okanagan in Kelowna, British Columbia.

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Gareth R. Jones
Gareth R. Jones, PhD, is assistant professor of Human Kinetics at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, where he delivers courses in healthy lifestyle management and program evaluation.

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