Sport for older adults

In older age, sport can be engaged in either recreationally or competitively. Research on recreational older persons and masters athletes has shown numerous sporting benefits.

Sport may provide even greater social, mental and cognitive health benefits than other forms of exercise due to the social interactions and decision-making components that occur frequently during sport.

Many of these benefits can be obtained with just one or two sessions per week.

Benefits of sport for older adults

Physical Social Mental Cognitive
↑ Muscular strength and endurance Meeting more people ↑ Quality of life ↑ Cognitive function and decision making
↓ Body fat ↑ Muscle and bone mass Become part of a community ↑ Self-esteem ↓ Risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
↑ Immune function and ↓ Risk of chronic diseases (breast and colon cancer, heart disease, hypertension, type II diabetes) ↑ Social support ↓ Anxiety and depression ↓ Memory failure
↑ Sleep quality and ability to cope with pain Playing with younger family members ↑ Motivation


Research has also shown there are several constraints on older individuals engaging in sport. The major reasons are poor health, lack of time (family, career, caregiving), social expectations discouraging sport participation, lack of accessible opportunities and lack of self-discipline.

Once you do find opportunities to connect with other older adults who share your sporting interests, you will discover the many benefits will override these barriers.

Sport can be adaptive for conditions and disabilities

Many sports are now modified to allow more middle-aged and older adults to safely participate and reap the rewards of long-term sport participation. However, it is still recommended that older individuals who are considering engaging with sport first inform their family doctor or medical specialist, particularly older individuals with medical conditions.

Many major sporting organisations such as soccer, netball, basketball, swimming, Australian football, cycling, triathlon and track and field have activities organised at club levels for older people. Many of these formal clubs or informal gatherings will get together once or twice a week.

Find a suitable program in your area

If you live in an apartment complex or retirement village, there may already be sporting activities that are available. If not, you may be able to encourage the management to develop such sporting activities.

A simple web search can also identify contact details for local, state, or national organisations that cater for older individuals. A list of major sporting organisations at national level can be found via the Sport Australia directory or you can locate local community sporting events via the PlaySport directory.

You can also visit your local pool or sporting facility, ring the local council or shire Sport and Recreation Officer, or jump online and look for community resources websites to find a local contact.

Don’t be scared off. Get a local contact and ring them for a chat. You will be pleasantly surprised to find the emphasis is on fun, fitness and friendship rather than competition.

Speak to the exercise professionals

ESSA has an online directory of accredited exercise professionals – Accredited Exercise Physiologists, Accredited Exercise Scientists and Accredited Sports Scientists – who can assist older adults initiate and adhere to long-term beneficial and safe sports participation by:
1. Working in conjunction with local organisations to develop sporting competitions for older adults. Examples of these could be Sport for Health programs, whereby the program is more sport- than exercise-based.

2. Developing short-term training programs that help prepare insufficiently active older adults for safe participation in sport. Such programs could be offered at relevant times throughout the year prior to the season or event commencing.

It’s also important to not be scared off by the risk of injury. Research has shown that older athletes have similar or lower rates of injury than younger athletes. Training smart under the guidance of an accredited exercise professional can help prevent injury.

Read more in the Exercise for Older Adults eBook! Download here. 

Expert Contributors: Professor Peter Reaburn, Adjunct Professor and Head of Program at Bond University; and Dr Justin Keogh, Accredited Sports Scientist and Associate Professor at Bond University