A common misperception about aging is that it’s all downhill after 35 – particularly when it comes to performative decline for competitive and noncompetitive athletes. While this may have been the case decades ago, increasing numbers of athletes are defying this incorrect assumption – and there’s research to show why1.
Older athletes are faced with three main challenges, namely trying to avoid chronic injuries, a slower recovery rate and improving one’s performance in the face of these challenges. There are multiple reasons why an athlete is likely to develop chronic injuries more easily with age. For starters, you’re more likely to exacerbate older injuries, develop movement dysfunction and not get enough rest, in addition to inadequate nutrition and poor load management2.
Functional medicine promises a holistic approach to the question of athletic performance in older athletes, one that assures that the whole athlete – biochemical make up, lifestyle, environment, and nutrition – is taken into account when mapping out strategies for improved performance well into their 30s and the decades beyond.
Start with these two questions
To begin, every athlete should ask two questions of themselves: what do I need more of in order to increase my performance and improve my wellbeing, and, what do I need less of in order to do the same thing?
Know your numbers
Don’t rely on guesswork: getting the right evaluations done, such as movement tests, determining your resting heart rate over a period of time2 and blood tests (in the case of nutrition and vitamin deficiencies) will provide a sound basis to work from. Having this information better positions you to develop the right strategies to combat the challenges we’ve spoken about.
Hire a coach
Adapt your workout and nutrition to accommodate your changing needs2. Consider hiring a coach to assist you with this, or getting a functional movement screen done to determine areas of weakness. Ensure that you schedule enough off-days, and use that time to rest, and balance this out by working hard during your ‘on’ days. Work on specific mobility and stability, and shift your attention to movement, rather than targeting individual muscle sets.
Get your mind right
Age brings mental advantages such as increased mental perseverance and a strong psychological underpinning3. Yet while athletes may be more self-motivated, another challenge presents itself: learning to understand your body’s unique strengths and limits, and being aware of when you need to push yourself during a workout, and when you must prioritise rest and recovery.
What does work in your favour is that older athletes have had more experience, which has significant neurological benefits: the older athlete’s brain is able to process a situation better than a younger athlete, since it has made the connection between a potentially-injurious movement and injury many times before, and has been better programmed to avoid it4. In much the same way, older athletes should develop psychological strategies to cope with dips in confidence or self-belief, as this can create a self-perpetuating cycle that affects your ability to perform4.
Consider air quality
While this is rarely discussed, air quality can directly affect your athletic performance5. Why? Smog can affect one’s ability to breathe deeply while working out6, and air that contains contaminants like microscopic particles (which consist of heavy metals) can be inhaled deep into the lungs6. This compounds the issue of older bodies not using oxygen as efficiently1.
V02 max, the measurement by which the maximum volume of oxygen the body uses in strenuous exercise is calculated, lowers as you grow older, and poor air quality compounds this challenge. Since our breathing impacts multiple physiological systems, including how efficiently the body processes food (metabolism), your immune system, physical performance and blood chemistry, doing so in a heavily polluted environment can undermine these functions5.
Drink clean water
Our tap water is often recycled, in addition to containing traces of heavy metals and even, in extreme cases, other dangerous contaminants7. Water plays a huge role in transporting nutrients to different areas of your body, facilitating digestive processes and peristalsis, while also lubricating connective tissue. For these reasons, it’s best to drink filtered, clean water to better support these important biological processes, and in turn, maintain your athletic output.
Get enough natural light
Your body’s Vitamin D synthesis and B12 production depend on adequate exposure to sunlight8. Natural light not only activates the immune system and regulates hormone levels, it is responsible for restoring the circadian rhythm and sleep cycles (while also keeping bacteria, viruses and fungi at bay). Without enough natural light, your body would be unable to combat fatigue, maintain a steady heart rate, or produce the chemicals serotonin and melatonin8. And this is of considerable importance as athletes depend on restorative sleep (amongst other things) for recovery from injury and heavy exercise loads9.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) advises that you expose your face, hands and arms to anything between five and 15 minutes of sunlight two to three times per week. And for this short span of time only, don’t wear sunscreen as this will inhibit your body’s ability to make vitamin D8.
Eat well – always
Your genetic predisposition to illness, injury and inflammation needn’t dictate your quality of life as you age. Shifting your eating habits to accommodate your body’s nutritional needs, in the form of thoughtful dietary choices and consuming the right amount of nutrients can negate your risk of developing age-related illnesses and help improve your performance and endurance10.
Older athletes can benefit from foods that are rich in protein and by ensuring that carbohydrates are nutrient-dense10. Getting enough healthy Omega-3 containing fats, sources of which include olive oil, nuts and fish, can guard against inflammation and even improve your endurance/sup>10. Following the MIND diet (which we’ve spoken about before) can help to negate cognitive decline as you get older, while portion control and excluding and including foods that align with your changing metabolic status can also improve your health.
Keep stress levels low
Stress is an unavoidable part of life and can increase with age as your financial, professional and person responsibilities become weightier. Not managing stress can put you at risk of burn out, injury and depression11. How so? Well, stress may feel merely emotional, but it is characterised by the release of stress hormones to induce the body’s response to a perceived threat11. Following this, too much stress keeps your body in a prolonged state of fight or flight, which can negatively impact everything from your endocrine system to your cardiovascular and respiratory systems11. Meditation practices, yoga and mindfulness can help remedy this, as can good sleep hygiene (and getting enough sleep each night9) and a healthy balanced diet.
Consider Pulse Electromagnetic Field (PEMF) therapy
PEMF is an emerging non-invasive treatment technique that can help speed up the rate of recovery, by stimulating the body’s natural healing capacity12. It’s also been shown to have an analgesic effect on people suffering from mild to moderate pain13. The treatment involves the pulsing of low-power, low-frequency electromagnetic waveform, designed to target limbic cells in the brain. Results from studies conducted have shown that this complementary therapy can help ease the pain of conditions as varying as fibromyalgia to bone fractures12.
How functional medicine can help you
By focussing on the unique genetic and biochemical makeup of each individual, functional medicine offers a powerful means of building the body’s natural immunity and healing systems, which is of considerable importance for older athletes looking to maintain and enhance their performance. In facilitating healthier lifestyle decisions, and tailoring a training and recovery programme to suit your unique body, the functional medicine approach can help you achieve optimal performance.
Start your wellness journey with us now by booking an appointment, or try our new online consultation service right here.
- How does aging affect athletic performance?. The Conversation. 2015. https://theconversation.com/how-does-aging-affect-athletic-performance-36051#:~:text=One%20big%20reason%20we%20see,t%20use%20oxygen%20as%20effectively.&text=That%20is%2C%20they%20can%20do,after%20the%20age%20of%2030.
- Injury prevention gets harder as you age. These methods help. The Washington Post, 2018.
- In ‘Play On,’ Exploring How Elite Athletes Improve With Age. The New York Times, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/17/well/move/play-on-jeff-bercovici-sports-aging-fitness-athletes.html
- The Little Known Advantages Of Being An Older Athlete. Vice, 2018.
- The Dangers of Smog: What You Need to Know About Air Pollution. Healthline, 2016.
- The Chemistry of Air Pollution. Sepa, 2019.
- Health risk assessments of arsenic and toxic heavy metal exposure in drinking water in northeast Iran. BioMed Central, 2019. https://environhealthprevmed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12199-019-0812-x
- Benefits of sunlight. Healthline, 2019.
- Sleep, Athletic Performance, and Recovery. Sleep Foundation, 2020. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/sleep-athletic-performance-and-recovery
- Diet and Health: Implications for Reducing Chronic Disease Risk. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine. 1989 https://www.nap.edu/read/1222/chapter/6
- The Effects of stress on your body. Healthline, 2020.
- Effects of pulsed electromagnetic field therapy at different frequencies and durations on rotator cuff tendon-to-bone healing in a rat model. Journal of shoulder and elbow surgery vol. 27,3 (2018): 553-560. doi:10.1016/j.jse.2017.09.024 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5835831/
- A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial using a low-frequency magnetic field in the treatment of musculoskeletal chronic pain. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, 2007. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2670735/#__ffn_sectitle