Beyond Their Prime? Or Just Missed Opportunity?

On July 12, ASA will publish a Generations Today issue on Sports and Recreation. The below piece serves as an appetizer for that issue.

The rise of Caitlin Clark and Juju Watkins. The successful campaigns of Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff. The medals of Eileen Gu and Chloe Kim. These are the athletes who continue to pave the way of sports for young women, who are more glued to the sports playing on the big screen than ever before.

Yet, despite such influence and excitement, there remains a disparity between positive perception and inclusivity across the lifespan, and between genders. Ageism in sports persists—older athletes are underestimated and tossed aside, older coaches are thought to be too “old school” for new generations, and some athletes keep fighting to remain relevant. Unfortunately, as seen in a recent editorial from the British Medical Journal, the representation disparity between men and women in sports is well-known and researched.

Despite now being part of the conversation, it can be a bit daunting to encourage more older women to become (or even remain) professional athletes. But these conversations have started to trickle down to not only intermediate and amateur athletes but also to the everyday woman. Pulling from the editorial, researchers from the U.K. “conducted an exploration of the ratio of males and females as participants in sport and exercise science research. Results revealed that within 5,261 studies, across six popular sport and exercise science journals, females accounted for 34% of total participants, with as little as 6% of studies focusing exclusively on females.”

A 2014 study also examined a sample of more than 79,000 women and found that regardless of age group, they usually were about 3% less active than their male counterparts. Moreover, the same study showed a 10% gap between women ages 20–49 and 50–70 in terms of not demonstrating any physical activity, defined as physical activity “no more than once a year.”

Certainly, all of us have heard about the benefits of exercise. Aerobic exercise has been shown time and time again to improve cardiovascular health over time, yet in 2015 more than 60% of women with cardiovascular disease reported not having met the American Heart Association’s recommendations for physical activity.

‘Participants often express their gratitude for having a class where they can learn more about ways to exercise.’

Low levels of exercise and long periods of time in a sedentary position have been shown to rapidly age our cells, according to researchers from the University of California, San Diego. Older women also are shown to have a more difficult time retaining muscle mass from protein in their diets compared to older men.

What’s causing this gap? Liam Hanson previously wrote about this issue for the International Longevity Centre in the United Kingdom. Self-perception rises to the top of the list. Either the self-perception that women are not necessarily a “sporty-type of person that involves themselves with athletics.” Or such perceptions could stem from internal ageism, wherein some older women believe they are incapable of participating in physical activity due to fear of injury or ineffectiveness.

An equally important barrier concerns caregiving. Often responsible for the care of their children and parents, women report simply not having the time to care for their own health. Caregiving responsibilities also often result in negative health effects. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, 1 in 10 of caregivers report experiencing some decline in their personal health as a result of their expanded responsibilities. Moreover, women who provided care to a spouse were more likely to report high blood pressure, diabetes and higher levels of cholesterol.

Solutions come in a variety of forms and a flurry of opportunities. These include challenging the existing disparity between male and female athletes by exposing young TV and movie watchers to a more positive narrative about sports for both sexes, thus allowing younger people to grow up assuming female athletes are the norm. Such a cultural switch should dispel existing negative stereotypes and perceptions. And support older women who previously had little exposure to incredible female athletes.

This is not a call for all older women to take up sports and pursue intense athletic achievement. Rather, positive physical activity can be found in groups, exercise classes, gym programs or local sports leagues. These activities can act as a lifeline for social interaction, support, and physical activity—all vital elements for well-being.

As someone who teaches an exercise class for older adults, which is made up of predominantly women, I've witnessed these profound benefits firsthand. Beyond the structured regimen, the class provides an opportunity to connect with others who share similar interests and goals. Participants often express their gratitude for having a class where they can learn more about ways to exercise. They come to class a day or two after the last class talking about how they may have modified a stretch to get rid of some existing pain that they had only tackled previously with medications. Over time, many of the participants bond through the shared experience of sweat and ’80s music. They chat together after the session or carpool together. The routine nature and reasonable commitment of our class ensures they meet physical activity requirements, while being encouraged by their peers, who are all working out together.

Older women in our class come for a variety of reasons. Some say they have never exercised previously and now have time after their children have moved out; others are trying to help their partner become more active and serve as a litmus test for the couple. Regardless, they always arrive enthusiastic and ready to engage in our exercise regimen. A few have even called our class “too easy,” and asked to up the intensity. We added an ab and core regimen, which seemed to do the trick.

I’ve had an absolute blast so far in my few months as an instructor; however, I know that there remains this exercise disparity not only in exposure to the available possibilities, but also in making time to encourage women to find a physical activity they enjoy. With time and more extensive research, I imagine and hope that perhaps my participants could even teach the class themselves.

Lois Angelo is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where he studied human development and aging as well as occupational science. His work has been published in the USC Daily Trojan, the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, Age Equity Alliance, and Aging in Media. As an aspiring geriatrician, Lois hopes to continue studying intergenerational relationships and ways to effectively combat ageism.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/DisobeyArt