The topic of aging and physical activity has primarily focused on the experiences of older people. However, aging is not the sole prerogative of old people. Accordingly, part of my research has aspired to bring young people, namely athletes, into discussions of the aging process by asking them to look forwards and express views on their own aging process; what they expect, hope, or fear experiencing.
For athletes, such questions are especially pertinent. Much time and energy have often been invested over the years into developing a highly disciplined, able, performing body, which ultimately becomes central to their sense of identity (Phoenix, Faulkner & Sparkes, 2005). This, coupled with the negative stereotypes surrounding the aging body depicting frailty, immobility, and dependency can cause the prospect of growing old to seem especially troubling for this population (Phoenix & Sparkes, 2006a, 2008).
The project involved interviews with twenty two young athletes (m= 9, f = 13) with a mean age of 20 years. All of the participants were involved in competitive sport, and enrolled upon a degree program in Sport and Exercise Sciences, in the UK. A series of confidential, semi-structured life history interviews lasting between one and two hours was conducted with each participant.
The findings illustrated the important role of older adults in shaping young people’s views of what lies ahead. Relationships with members of other generational groups can be significant in providing narrative maps (Pollner & Stein, 1996) about the aging process, which describe and advise younger people about the practices, and problems they are likely to encounter as they grow older. Narrative maps can also direct individuals toward or away from certain activities in the future, and are therefore relevant to discussions of active aging.
The participants who had access to narrative maps depicting a physically active middle and older age were more positive about the aging process than those who didn’t. Those who had regular contact with parents and / or grandparents leading an active lifestyle viewed their own future with a sense of optimism and continued opportunities. Narrative maps depicting middle age however, were gender specific (Phoenix & Sparkes, 2006b). Informed by their Mother’s experiences, the female participants anticipated reduced opportunities to be physically active throughout midlife due to work and family commitments. Meanwhile, recounting how their Fathers had negotiated physical activity throughout midlife, the male participants expected to reschedule (i.e. to the weekends) rather than reduce their involvement in sport and leisure during this period.
The study also highlighted the influence that masters athletes had on positively shaping the participants perceptions of self-aging. Those who were involved in sports with an established masters movement (e.g. rugby) generally expressed an intention to continue their sport participation into later life. For many, masters athletes reinforced the notion that (intense) physical competition and skill does not have to cease purely because one is growing older (see Tulle, 2008, Dionigi, 2008, Phoenix & Sparkes, 2007 for further discussion on masters athletes).
The study reinforces that discussions of active of aging should be mindful of younger populations. Previous research has suggested that "For younger individuals, internalized negative stereotypes of aging can support ageist attitudes, affect their relationships with older persons in their lives as well as causing worry about their own future" (Neikrug, 2003: 327). Whilst not totally unproblematic in terms of how we understand aging (see Gilleard & Higgs, 2002), maintaining physical activity across the life course can challenge the negative stereotypes of aging which seeming prevail, and can lead to young people being pessimistic about the future and toward older people in general.