A study in the Journal of Aging Studies explores how participation in sports influences older adults’ understanding of age and aging. In particular, the study explored how sports participation challenged dominant assumptions about older adulthood. The author argues that participation in sports may lead older adults to challenge negative associations with aging through a focus on the experience of enduring physical capabilities, and providing valuable social networks and senses of identity.
The study was based on interviews with 22 Swedish adults (10 men, 12 women) between the ages of 66 and 90. Each participant was active in local sports clubs or informal athletic activities, mostly running, skiing, and swimming. The author observed a few gender differences within the sample. For example, the men reported fewer social obstacles to sports participation in their youth and early to middle adulthood, and took less pleasure in the competitive aspects of sports in older adulthood. Women reported being discouraged from sports participation in their youth, but found participation in older adult athletics to give them a sense of membership in a larger, empowered collective of women athletes.
Participants’ perceptions of the physical processes of aging were shaped by participation in sports, and the effects that continued athletic activity had on their bodies. For example, many of the men in the study reported that sports helped them maintain a healthy weight (in contrast to both frailty and excessive weight). Both men and women noted how athletics participation helped maintain a high degree of physical capacity (especially relative to chronological-age peers), yet at the same time demonstrated to them the effects of aging if their performances began to decline.
It is worth considering how some of these findings may be particular to Sweden, a society with a greater emphasis on gender equality (although the women in the study did report social impediments to sports participation during their “child-rearing years”) and social participation than most. However, the author uses these findings to provocatively suggest that researchers consider “capability-age” as a useful concept in how active older adults understand their own aging.