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Raising the bar at 40

More athletes are staying in the game longer, leading the way for middle-aged Americans.

September 29, 2003|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

We watch them in awe, amazed by their athletic prowess. They aren't supposed to be this fast, this strong, this dominant as their hair goes gray, as they advance deeper into middle age.

They are an elite class of older athletes -- including baseball's Barry Bonds (age 39), basketball's Karl Malone (40) and track-and-field star Regina Jacobs (40) -- whose competitive excellence sends a message to fans and casual observers alike: You too can stay in the game.

There are more professional athletes in their late 30s and 40s in major sports today than at any other time. Major league baseball, for example, has 11 players over age 40, including such stars as New York Yankee Roger Clemens and Arizona Diamondback Randy Johnson. In tennis, Martina Navratilova, at age 46, became the oldest player in Wimbledon history to claim a title when she won a mixed doubles crown last summer. Although not all are record-setters, together they serve as role models for millions of middle-aged and older Americans trying to stay in shape.

"I think when some athletes get older they decide to stop working hard," says Malone, a Laker and the NBA's second all-time leading scorer, whose off-season workouts are legendary around the league. "It's not that their bodies stop, it's just that they've decided to stop pushing it."

Older athletes aren't the only ones who stop pushing it. So do many other Americans, who slip into patterns of overeating, inactivity and fatalistic attitudes about the physical decline that often accompanies middle age. Although even the most ambitious workout and dietary program won't propel your average 40-year-old into the big leagues, it can provide a hardy defense against physical decline, according to exercise physiologists.

"Through science we've learned how to train people and keep them stronger and fitter over a longer period of time," says Dr. Richard Kreider, head of the Center for Exercise, Nutrition and Preventive Health Research at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "There's no reason to slow down, whether you're a professional athlete or the average person."

Not only have some aging professional athletes not slowed down, a handful have taken the performance to new heights toward the end of their careers. Bonds, of the San Francisco Giants, is one such athlete. His ability to hit a baseball -- a skill widely regarded as among the most difficult in sports -- is virtually unparalleled. Last year, he set a single-season home run record with 73; this year, with more than 40 homers already, he was poised to overtake Willie Mays for third place on the all-time career home run list.


Two decades of evidence

For decades, the average age of athletes in such North American sports as basketball, baseball, football and hockey has crept higher. Two decades ago, the average age of players in the National Hockey League was 25; today, it's 28. In major league baseball, the average is 29.

Some experts believe that the number of older athletes will continue to rise. "There's definitely going to be more 40-year-old pro athletes," says Kreider. "I wouldn't be surprised if some day we see a 45-year-old running back in the NFL."

For the millions of fans sitting on the sidelines, the growing success of older athletes may be fueling the motivation to remain fit. "It's enormously inspiring for ordinary people over 40," says Dr. Jerry May, a clinical psychologist at the University of Nevada Medical School in Reno who worked with the U.S. Alpine Ski Team from 1980 to 1992.

Exercise physiologists point to the rise of strength and conditioning programs as the engine driving the new athletic durability and longevity.

Many of today's older athletes were entering college and professional sports at the time that strength and conditioning programs were becoming more commonplace. The programs, which stressed cardiovascular fitness and weightlifting, were designed to give athletes an extra competitive edge -- and they did.

Their success spawned a culture of physical fitness among professional athletes that was absent just 20 years ago. Back then, when even star athletes were known to drink beer and smoke during training and the regular season, few pro teams employed strength and conditioning coaches.

Now, they all do, even in such sports as baseball and basketball, in which the conventional wisdom used to be that lifting weights would ruin the ability to hit a fast ball or shoot a free throw. The new training philosophy forever changed the purpose of training camps as well. Once it was a place to get in shape; now it's a place to get in even better shape.


Lifting data 'astonishing'

"Guys would show up fat," says William J. Evans, a physiologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who has worked with professional sports teams. "That almost never happens today where players can be denied pay [bonuses] for being out of shape."

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