Twenty-three-year-old Michael Phelps might have won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics and earned Sports Illustrated's 2008 Sportsman of the Year cover, but his fellow American swimmer Dara Torres, age 41, left that same pool with nearly as much fame plus three silver medals. When the Philadelphia Phillies won their first championship in 28 years in the fall, it was in large part because of the performance of their pitching ace, 46-year-old Jamie Moyer, who won 16 games during the regular season. Another 46-year-old, Chris Chelios, won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008.
While you're probably not ready to compete at their levels, you can use their examples as inspiration. Just because you're getting older doesn't mean you have to give up on the sports and fitness activities that you enjoy. With a few modest adjustments to account for your overall physical health and the inevitable changes of aging, you can continue to play sports for many years longer than traditionally has been expected.
As is the case at any age, you should seek the advice of your doctor before initiating any major changes in your fitness routine. Also, be aware of some the basics of aging: Most people start to lose muscle mass in their 30s, bone mass in their 40s, and tendons and ligaments get less flexible over time. An approachable way to adjust for these aspects of growing older is to change the rigor of the activities you already enjoy. For example, instead of playing singles tennis, try moving into doubles, suggests William Raasch, a doctor and director of the Division of Sports Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Decreasing the amount of repetitive impact (i.e., running and jumping) should also reduce the number of aches and pains you feel the day after.
The other advice experts offer is to maintain a routine that balances equal parts of strength training, stretching and flexing, and cardiovascular exercise. The first two condition your body in ways that can reduce the chances of injury when you compete. And the cardio exercise fights heart disease, for which your risks increase as you grow older.
"You don't have to put an age limit on your dreams," Torres said of her Olympian achievement. With a little inspiration, training, and competitive grit, you might find some trophies in your future rather than your past.