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The Real Secret to Becoming a Strong Athlete in Midlife

Yes, it is possible, with tenacity and training.

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photo collage of female athlete in different positions, pickleball, sport
Illustration: Franziska Barczyk; (portrait: Lynsey Weatherspoon)
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Last spring my husband came into the kitchen and uttered one word that sounded like two that would change my life. That word was “pickleball.” A year later, I can’t imagine a week without it.

What’s so surprising about my love affair with pickleball is that I’ve always been patently disinterested in sports, and a lifelong hater of anything billed as “exercise.” And it’s no wonder.

From age 12 on, I exercised for the sole purpose of losing weight, including all through college, when I became anorexic. In my 30s and 40s, with my weight stabilized, I took a walk every day with my dogs, which I loved.

Then, in our 50s, my husband and I decided we should be doing something more strenuous, and so, for seven years — up until the pandemic closed our gym — we worked out twice weekly with a personal trainer. Our routine was a combination of aerobics, weightlifting and high-intensity interval training, commonly known as HIIT.

All of this I disliked so much that I literally hid my sneakers in the back of my closet between workout days so I wouldn’t have to see them. Thankfully, at the age of 58, pickleball came calling.

Women 50 and over are increasingly finding their way into team and individual sports, as evidenced by the jump in female participation in the National Senior Games, from 4,419 women in 2009 to 6,818 in 2019. The years 2017 to 2019 alone saw an increase of 2,101 female participants, according to statistics provided by Sue Hlavacek, director of events and programs for the National Senior Games Association.

At age 53, wellness coach and author Jamie Gold of San Diego lost weight after her divorce and got into endurance sports. She quickly discovered, as did I with pickleball, that training for a sport or event “is much more motivating than dieting and exercising.” Over the past eight years, Gold has competed in marathons, climbed Mount Whitney, and is training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Katie Altemus, 51, of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, also came to sports after the end of her marriage. Decades of inactivity and misdiagnosis of her chronic joint pain made it especially challenging. Altemus, who gradually worked her way up to competing in marathons, emphasizes the importance of self-praise as impetus to keep at it.

“When I’m in a race, at the start line, I congratulate myself, because I’ve already done more than the folks who are still in bed,” she says.

There are other factors besides time and responsibilities that can prevent women from getting or staying active at midlife and beyond. Older women can feel out of place in a fitness arena, especially if they’ve never been athletic before. But those of us who became later-life sports enthusiasts know that it pays off in terms of our mental and physical health.

Thanks to Title IX, which passed in 1972 and bans sex discrimination in federally funded programs, including sports, more midlife women have grown up being involved in athletics. In 1972, for example, just 1 in 27 women and girls were playing sports at the high school and college levels, and athletic scholarships for women were virtually nonexistent. By 2016, that number was 1 in 5, according to the Women's Sports Foundation.

“The women who are reaching the 50–55 age groups … are post-Title IX athletes who would have had the opportunity to participate in sports in high school and college,” says Hlavacek. And since athletes who play sports in high school and college are more likely to continue playing as adults, she adds, “I would think that more women will participate in our games in the future.”

What I have found in my own circle of women my age and older is that seniors who did not have the opportunity to play organized sports when they were younger are very committed and passionate about their foray into fitness.

David Glass, a lawyer, clinical psychologist and board chair of the Alzheimer’s Association California Southland chapter in Los Angeles, believes that milestone changes — kids moving away from home and especially divorce — contribute to the push of midlife women into sports. And culturally, we are seeing more of a normalization of the active lifestyle of seniors in the media and in commercials for athletic wear. As women live years longer than in earlier decades, they have an opportunity to reinvent themselves after 60, an age that used to be considered old.

Want to try a new sport but not sure what? Glass recommends taking a creative approach to making the choice.

“Brainstorm every activity you might like to try,” he starts out. “If what you’ve chosen doesn’t speak to you after a reasonable amount of time and effort, try a different one. And be patient. Don’t expect to be good at a sport the moment you pick it up. Instead, focus on the feeling of accomplishment for having gotten yourself out there.”

Remember my foray into pickleball last spring? This past summer, after playing for a little over a year, I registered to play in the Senior Olympics at the Chattanooga (Tennessee) Convention Center with a 65-year-old friend. It was nerve-racking — instead of three courts of players going at once, like at my gym, there were about 70 courts going at once. And at the same time, it was a thrill being part of a group of people, all near my age and older.

My partner and I were overjoyed to place fourth out of eight teams, which qualified us for a spot in the 2022 National Senior Games, which will be played this May in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Moral of this story? Don’t just think about joining a sport. Do it! You’ll be in great company.

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