Sixty and you play ice hockey. Seventy and you play competitive volleyball. Eighty and you’re on a basketball team. Ninety-five and you still compete in swimming events. These are just some of the state and national level master athletes in the U.S. today. This should come as no surprise. Baby boomers, the first of whom turned 60 in 2006, are healthier and more active then their parents and grandparents. In some cases these aging athletes are in better shape than inactive adults half their age.
Almost a quarter of all health club membership belongs to adults over age 55 and more than 10,000 athletes competed in the 2011 National Senior Games. Research into the benefits of competing as master athletes shows favorable blood fat levels, normal insulin and blood glucose levels, good bone health, and improved mood. These benefits continue as long as the athlete is active.
We don’t know much about the nutritional needs of older athletes. As the population of active seniors increases this will be an area receiving more attention. If you are 55+ and still very physically active what should you eat to maximize health and performance?
Our resting metabolic rate, calories needed to keep our bodies functioning at rest, appears to decline as we age. Yet, when researchers looked at older women and men who maintained a high level of physical activity into their 70’s, there was no difference in resting metabolic rate compared to younger adults. In post menopausal women, who often have higher body fat levels and more fat accumulation in the midsection, those women who remained active did not show body composition changes. This implies that body changes may be more closely related to level of activity than hormonal status.
Older athletes may need more carbohydrate to maximize performance. Though energy bars and drinks are often promoted, good old fashioned choices like fig newtons, dried fruits, and crackers work just as well. For events lasting more than an hour, a high carb snack during the event can provide the extra “kick” needed at the end of a road race or competitive team event. Recovery from hard exercise can be enhanced with a carb feeding immediately post-event and again 2 hours after the event.
Aging is associated with a loss in muscle mass. The term sarcopenia was coined to describe the loss and decline in muscle strength seen as we age. It effects up of 30% of those over 60 and can lead to decreased mobility and functioning. Physical activity, especially resistance training, is the best antidote for sarcopenia.
Protein is needed to repair and grow muscle fibers. There is no specific protein recommendation for master athletes, but some experts recommend 100 grams of protein per day to maintain muscle mass and strength in older adults. This recommendation can easily be met by including low fat milk, cheese, and yogurt, eggs, nuts and seeds, beans, and lean meat, fish and poultry. Eating a protein snack after endurance or resistance exercise can help with muscle recovery. A peanut butter sandwich, nuts and raisins, or a tuna sandwich can replace both carb and protein post-exercise.
There is no fat recommendation for athletes other than the one suggested to the general public, 20 to 35% of total calories daily. Everyone, including the master athlete, should rely more on monounsaturated fats (olive, canola and nut oils) and polyunsaturated fats (safflower, corn and soybean oils) and reduce the intake of saturated fats (butter, cheese, bacon and fatty meats). Trans fats (hydrogenated, hardened fats) found in fried foods and baked sweets should be avoided whenever possible.
Little work has been done on the vitamin and mineral needs of older athletes but we do know that the needs for some nutrients change as we age. Older adults need more vitamin D because the skin loses its ability to make the vitamin from sunshine. Those over 50 also need extra calcium, 1,200 milligrams a day, up from 1,000 milligrams recommended for younger adults. Physical activity aids in the absorption and utilization of calcium, enhancing the integrity of bones. Eating calcium-rich foods and taking a calcium plus vitamin D supplement daily is a wise choice for master athletes.
There is an increased need for both vitamin B6 and B12 as we age. B6 is needed for the breakdown of energy in the muscle and the removable of lactic acid. B12 is not absorbed from food as efficiently as we age. Those over 50 should take a supplement or eat B12 fortified foods (such as breakfast cereals).
Hydration is a concern for all athletes but may be more important as we age. Aging bring about changes in our sense of thirst, sweating, and kidney and blood adaptation to changing fluid and mineral levels. This effects the regulation of body temperature. Though fluid requirements are the same for younger and older athletes, the master athletes will have to make a conscious effort to drink enough because thirst and reaction to heat may not serve as the best external clues to fluid needs.
Exercise improves the quality of life at any age. And age should be no barrier to exercising. But, to maximize performance, eating well may be even more important for older competitors.