It’s not just one guy holding back the team — men, as a whole, tend to get worse at sports with age. Athletic performance usually peaks before the age of 30, research shows, and declines from there on. And while this may seem more noticeable in guys who were not that good at sports to begin with, more competitive athletes can have a harder time adjusting to their changing bodies. “One of the effects of aging is the involuntary loss of muscle mass, strength, and function, called sarcopenia,” chiropractor Dr. Arkady Lipnitsky told Fatherly.
Fast-twitch muscle fibers in particular, which are responsible for strength and power rather than endurance, wear down as people age. Furthermore, bodies use oxygen less effectively over time, and endurance and aerobic athletic performance take a hit. Endurance is typically measured by how well the body brings oxygen into the lungs, how well it carries oxygen into working muscles, and how much oxygen muscles use to fuel activation. For the general population, this declines by about 10 percent after the age of 30. “These metabolic changes in muscle contribute to the overall physical fitness capacity of the elderly and are an important component of the reduction of around 30 percent in the ability to utilize oxygen during exercise,” Lipnitsky adds.
Men also have a harder time balancing the older they get, starting at age 25. Balance depends on the coordination of three main systems in the body — visual, vestibular, and somatosensory systems. With time and inactivity, these systems have an increasingly harder time working together, and not falling becomes more cognitive work. This is why many older people might have trouble walking and carrying on a conversation at the same time, and occasionally fall over when they do. But it’s also not great for aging men playing pickup basketball either. And when men do take a dive, the older they are the longer they’ll take to recover from an injury.
Although these physiological changes are a normal part of aging, it should not discourage men from playing sports. If anything, the less physical activity men engage in as they get older, the more it will accelerate this age-related decline in performance, sports psychologist and coach Rob Bell warns.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing,” Bell explains. This may be the most challenging for more competitive and professional athletes as they age, because they may have to learn how to learn to enjoy aspects of the game that are not necessarily winning. Men who’ve never been that good at sports are usually better at adjusting to changes in athletic performance and just having fun. An inability to cope with changes in performance could make more competitive men frustrated and likely push themselves harder, putting them at a greater risk of injury. Older more competitive men can still play, and like all men, should for the sake of their health. But it may be beneficial for them (and everyone else in the game) if they adjusted their expectations and had more age-appropriate goals.
“Winning and competitiveness is the main motivator when younger,” Bell says. “With age, the goals often change to socialization, staying in shape, having fun, and competing against one’s self. If the goals are that then they are less likely to be sore losers or risk injury.”