Postmedia may earn an affiliate commission from purchases made through our links on this page.
Kelly Draycott grew up playing sports. Basketball, volleyball, street hockey, you name it, she played it. But once she had kids, there was no time to play. Thirty years later at the age of 60, she has rediscovered her love of sports on the pickleball court and is enjoying every minute of it.
“I like the challenge,” Draycott said. “I want to be the best I can be and see how far I can go in this sport.”
More and more women like Draycott are taking up physical challenges at middle age and beyond. Some are participating in a sport or activity for the first time and some are rekindling their love of exercise after years, and sometimes decades, away from any type of competitive or vigorous physical activity.
Enthusiasm and a love of being active go a long way when it comes to getting back in shape, but a middle-aged body feels the effects of exercise very differently than that same body 20 or so years earlier. That doesn’t mean getting fitter, faster and stronger is impossible after you hit your 40s, 50s and 60s, but it’s smart to acknowledge the changes that occur with time so training can be optimized to maximize potential.
Most research into the limits of human performance is built on data from a young, male population, which may not always apply to women, especially women of a “certain age.” Mindful that active middle-aged and older women may have unique training needs, Carey Rothschild, from the School of Kinesiology and Physical Therapy, University of Central Florida, penned an article for the Strength and Conditioning Journal designed to provide evidence-based suggestions on how to maximize athletic potential and reach competitive goals.
“Functional losses and physiological changes in the cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and endocrine systems that occur with female aging require recognition and thoughtful exercise prescription,” Rothschild said.
Much of the age-related decline in performance isn’t specific to sex. Both men and women experience a decrease in cardiovascular function, speed, power, muscle mass and flexibility starting in their 30s, all of which means you tire more quickly, move a little slower and may not have the reaction time you once had. Tendons, ligaments and fascia also change over time, losing resilience as the decades add up, which increases the risk of injury.
One age-related change that is specific to women, and often not talked about, is menopause, which can have an impact on training and performance. Starting with perimenopause and continuing through postmenopause, irregular or heavy periods, hot flashes, mood changes and sleep disruptions can affect the ability to train and recover. Symptoms vary considerably between individuals, but almost every woman entering into menopause has experienced days when pushing their physical limits was the last thing on their mind. Menopause can also accelerate bone loss, which increases the risk of fracture during a fall or any of the many missteps that can occur when training or competing.
Pelvic floor dysfunction is another condition that affects physical activity and is almost always specific to women. Often a result of pregnancy and delivery, incontinence during high-impact and explosive movements like running, jumping and quick changes in direction is common. More a source of embarrassment than a reason for diminished performance, it’s why some women choose not to exercise, train or compete. Yet maintaining a vigorous workout regime as you age is the single most important factor in limiting the rate of decline in athletic performance.
For women like Draycott, who have taken an extended break from regular physical activity, as well as those managing the effects of age on their active, but older bodies, a well-rounded conditioning program can help shore up some of your weaknesses and get your body competition ready.
But not any training program will do. Workouts need to take into consideration all the physiological changes that come with aging, including those that are specific to women. Weight training is a must. Not only does it build much-needed muscle, but it also strengthens bones and adds speed and power. And don’t be afraid to lift heavy loads. The more you fire up those muscles, the more mass you build and the more strength you gain.
Add high-intensity intervals to your aerobic workout. Taking your heart rate into the higher end of your maximum capacity increases your overall cardiovascular fitness and fights back against the effects of advancing age. Most of the research suggests that training volume and intensity are important when it comes to maximizing performance as you get older.
Mobility exercises and balance training are also key in improving performance. So find a yoga routine that works on both and do it regularly.
As for pelvic floor disorders and menopause, don’t let either of these health-related issues get in the way of your fitness and performance goals and the enjoyment of being on the move. Get a consultation with a pelvic floor specialist and talk to your physician regarding options to manage your menopausal symptoms. It’s not too late to pick up a paddle, pull on your bathing cap and goggles, lace up your running shoes or hop on your bike and have some fun.
“I got my joy back,” Draycott says of her return to sports. “This is 60!”
Fitness: How to stay fit while travelling
Fitness: Stay safe and hydrated in your heat-wave workouts
Fitness: Science defends the exercise habits of weekend warriors