Excerpt: Sports and Aging

Gerald R. Gems is a professor emeritus of kinesiology at North Central College. He is the author and editor of several books, including Before Jackie Robinson: The Transcendent Role of Black Sporting Pioneers (Nebraska, 2017) and The Athletic Crusade: Sport and American Cultural Imperialism (Nebraska, 2012). His newest book, Sports and Aging (Nebraska, 2022), is now available. Below is an excerpt from the introduction.


Gerald R. Gems

Successful aging has become a contested concept in the United States. Such an optimistic characterization ignores not only differences in gender, ethnicity, social class, and age but also the systemic inequities that promote social inequalities, income disparities, and consequent health disparities. While there is no consensus on the definition of successful aging, some studies have shown positive results among Masters athletes. David Geard and colleagues defined successful aging as late-life change via physical, psychological, cognitive, and social functioning, and determined that Masters swimmers fit that characterization. Hirofumi Tanaka drew similar conclusions in a study of aging competitive athletes.

One need not be athletic to enjoy a long, healthy, and happy life. Sport generally connotes competition, but in this study, sport is used generically to include any form of physical exertion, including dance, exercise to meet a level of fitness, and competitive games. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States advocate thirty minutes of aerobic exercise five days per week with supplemental strength activities. Inactivity is the cause of 9 percent of premature deaths and contributes to cardiorespiratory disease, type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, sleep problems, and increases in the risks of cancer and obesity.

Diet is also an important part of aging well. For nearly two decades researchers have been studying and analyzing five areas of the world known as blue zones, where an inordinate number of people live beyond one hundred years. On the Greek island of Ikaria, there is little dementia. Okinawa, the southernmost island in Japan, is the residence of the world’s oldest women. In the mountains of Sardinia, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea, live the most centenarian men. In Loma Linda, California, a community consisting largely of Seventh Day Adventists, people live on average ten years longer than other Americans. Men living in the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica have the second highest number of centenarians in the world.

Despite their differences in geography and culture, the inhabitants of such areas have some common characteristics and lifestyles. Their diets are largely vegetarian, with a lot of fruits and nuts, and the Mediterranean diet includes substantial amounts of olive oil. Beans are an important and virtually daily component of meals. Water, coffee, tea, and red wine serve as daily liquids. All inhabitants of these areas remain physically active throughout their lives through working, walking, or exercise. Their relatively stress-free lives often include a strong social support network of family, friends, or a religious community. Despite their age, they are still valued members of the society and maintain a purpose in their lives.

Conversely, Americans continue to follow a diet prone to obesity, heart disease, and cancer that lowers the average lifespan. “Today, the average American adult consumes 79 pounds of fat and 8,000 teaspoons of added sugar annually. And we wash it all down with 57 gallons of soda a year.” A recent U.S. government study showed that a third of American adults, both men and women, eat fast food daily, and the wealthier classes eat more fast food than lower income groups do.

Americans are not the only ones who neglect their health. Modern life in industrialized countries tends to produce sedentary lifestyles that result in major health issues such as obesity and heart conditions that can result in debility or death.

Numerous studies have indicated the value of physical activity relative to aging. Sufficient physical activity in the form of sport or less competitive leisure pursuits can improve muscle mass and function, and can lower the chances of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular and heart diseases. Other studies indicate a positive change in appearance, self-concept, and psychological well-being due to such activity. Some studies show the benefit of physical activity for individuals with dementia, while others indicate that even informal team games promote greater sociability for aging populations.

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