Sports for seniors

Scan the pickleball courts, the aquatic centers, the golf courses, and the Silver Sneakers classes. You’ll find older adults exercising and living their best life. You may even find them running marathons and participating in extreme sports.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, life expectancy in the U.S. has largely risen over the last four decades, with a few exceptions. This, coupled with more access to sports and activities, has led to an increase in older people participating in activities their parents or grandparents may never have dreamed of at that age.

There are so many sports for older adults today — and with good reason. Regular exercise reduces the risk for cancer and heart disease. It also helps prevent muscle and bone loss that happen with age.

It even helps to boost your mood. Plus, for many older adults, it’s an important social activity.

Whether you’ve tried a class geared toward older adults or you’re searching for sports for seniors, here are some suggestions.

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Recommended Exercise Guidelines for Older Adults

According to the Centers for Disease Control, people who are 65 and older should aim for:

  • 150 minutes (that’s 30 minutes, five days each week) of moderate aerobic activity. Brisk walking counts as moderate exercise. Alternatively, you could get 75 minutes a week of high intensity exercise, like running.
  • Muscle-strengthening exercises (like a core exercise class, aquatic class, or lifting weights) twice a week.
  • Balance exercises three times/week (like standing on one foot).

In an August 2022 JAMA article, researchers compared the guidelines with data from a national health survey where the respondents had an average age of 70. They found that older adults who met the guidelines for aerobic activity had a 13% lower risk of death.

The study was notable because researchers often focus on the health benefits of exercise in younger adults. But this one focused on the benefits of exercise for older adults.

Sports With the Greatest Health Benefits for Older Adults

In the study, researchers catalogued the different types of exercise that older adults said they participated in. The main ones that people mentioned were:

  • Running/jogging.
  • Walking.
  • Aerobics or weight training classes.
  • Racquet sports, like tennis and pickleball.
  • Cycling (either outside or inside on an exercise bike).
  • Swimming.
  • Golf.
  • Walking.

The two sports for seniors that saw the greatest mortality risk reduction were racquet sports and running/jogging.

But there’s good news. Scientists found that all activities provided some benefits. That was true even if people were short of the recommended 150 minutes/week. Hitting the guidelines is best, but any activity is better than none.

Ultimately, the best sport for you is the one you will stick with. Here are a few that we know are popular among seniors.

Pickleball, Anyone?

If you’re inclined to try a racquet sport, you might consider pickleball. It’s a combination of badminton, tennis, and table tennis. Players use paddles to hit a wiffle-like ball over a net.

Pickleball has taken off because it combines exercise, fun, and socializing. It’s one of Forbes top recommended sports for seniors.

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) even sponsored a study on pickleball. Researchers found that what makes pickleball so attractive is that participants can decide the intensity. It can be easy or fast-paced, and as competitive as players want.

The study found that regular participation in pickleball helped players meet exercise intensity guidelines. But it was more than that. “The research team observed a lot of socializing, conversation, and laughter before, during, and after the pickleball matches,” the study says.

That matters, said the lead author, Lance Dallek. “This type of social support is tremendously valuable when it comes to long-term adherence,” he said.

Walk This Way

According to the National Council on Aging, people who regularly walk with someone else are more likely to stick with walking. Meeting a friend or neighbor each day for a walk helps you stay accountable. It also inspires conversation and connection.

Walking has tremendous benefits for everyone, but especially older adults. Aiming for 10,000 steps (about five miles) can be especially beneficial.

A 2023 study in Circulation looked at older adults who walked 6,000 to 9,000 steps a day (three to four miles). Researchers found they were 40% to 50% less likely to have a heart attack than those who walked 2,000 steps.

Try an Exercise Class

There are many types of exercise classes geared to seniors at YMCAs, JCCs, and community centers across the country. A few include:

  • Fit & Strong: A community-based fitness program geared toward older adults who have arthritis. See locations.
  • Silver Sneakers: A fitness program that helps older adults stay active through fun fitness classes. They also offer on-demand classes. Learn more.

Hit the Pool

Swimming has the benefit of being easier on your joints. It can be a gentler movement, but still challenging enough to work your muscles.

The pool also offers an endless array of possibilities.

You can swim laps or focus on treading water. You can also take water fitness classes, where you do resistance exercises. (Silver Sneakers also offers pool-based workouts.)

How Older Adults Can Get Started with Exercise

Among the many sports you can try are golf, dancing, hiking, biking, Pilates, yoga, and tai chi. But the number one thing to keep in mind when you try a new activity is to start slowly. Too much, too fast can lead to injury or burnout.

A few other tips to keep in mind:

  • Make sure to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water during your workout. This is important year-round, but especially in warmer temperatures.
  • Warm up and cool down. This lets your heart rate increase and decrease more steadily.
  • Set attainable goals and ladder up to bigger goals. If your goal is to walk five miles, start with one mile, and add on five minutes each time.
  • Consider keeping an exercise log or using a fitness tracker. Being able to see your progress can be motivating.
  • Always discuss your exercise plans with your doctor first, especially any concerns you may have.

Experts at UPMC Sports Medicine care for athletes and active people of all ages. To learn more or schedule an appointment, visit our website or call 1-855-937-7678.

How Older Adults Can Get Started With Exercise. National Institute on Aging. Link.

The Life-Changing Benefits of Exercise After 60. National Council on Aging. Link.

About Sports Medicine

An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.