The Rio Olympics have just come to a close, and I am surely going to miss them. One of the most impressive things for me this year was the success of athletes who we would usually consider “older”. The common perception when it comes to elite athletes is that success is for the young. However, on multiple occasions in Rio, older athletes triumphed over their younger counterparts.
Kristin Armstrong was the oldest athlete to win a gold medal. She won the women’s cycling time trial the day before her 43rd birthday. Anthony Ervin became the fastest swimmer in the world, winning the 50m freestyle – an event he won 16 years earlier in Sydney. At 35, he is the oldest swimmer to ever win a gold medal. Michael Phelps, who at the age of 31, competed in his 5th consecutive Olympics, walking away with 6 medals, 5 of which were gold. Jo Pavey was the oldest competitor on the track, competing in the 10,000m at age 42 (and in coming a respectable 15th). The most impressive is Oksana Chusovitina, who at the age of 41 finished 7th in the gymnastics vault competition- a sport that notoriously favors youth.
So what can we learn from this? While research tells us that there is a decline in fitness related measurements as we age (such as aerobic power and muscle mass), it doesn’t mean that we can’t be as fit and healthy as we choose to be. Studies also show that regular physical activity can preserve health and performance-related measurements, including cardiovascular fitness, body composition and metabolic pathways.
Obviously, most of us don’t want to train the same volume as Olympians and we certainly don’t need to be elite athletes to be healthy. Perhaps though, it is worthwhile adjusting our way of thinking. We generally accept that as we get older, our physical condition will deteriorate. Rio proves that this is not the case at all. Maybe age can simply be a number, and not a limiting factor.
Article by: Erin Lyons, ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist