Age is no barrier

 

Increasing access to modified sports is helping to ensure fewer seniors are taking getting old lying down.

Petit ballonés, tucks, double marking and scissor kicks are terms usually associated with enthusiasts unhindered by the demands of an ageing physique. But now a new breed of athlete is challenging the form of traditional ballet, squash, gymnastics, netball and soccer sportspeople by signing up in droves for modified versions of these types of sports.

While no official record is kept of the number of active seniors engaging in such activities, anecdotal evidence from sports fields, courts, gymnasiums and studios across Australia suggests the numbers are growing exponentially.
Such has been the demand for this type of physical activity, senior advocacy organisation COTA Victoria has launched its own modified sports program called Back in the Game. Incorporating a mix of ball games, badminton, tennis and hockey, the aim of the program is to assist community facility operators to provide sport and recreational activities that will appeal to older people.

Sessions are based on familiar games that have been amended for safety – through modifications including reducing the game time, limiting the amount of physical contact, reducing the weight of equipment and decreasing distances – and are played informally, with no commitment to set teams, game schedules or competitions.

Many senior organisations say they understand the key role physical activity plays in enabling older people to age well with others and are working hard to overturn the perception that participation in sport and physical activity is inappropriate due to age or that they active seniors are simply too old or too frail to participate.

They argue that while Australia’s active seniors are often offered ‘age-appropriate’ activities, such as lawn bowls, swimming, golf, and walking, they believe there is room for a greater range of options to be made available.

The NSW government feels so strongly about it that late last year it committed $100,000 to helping to improve the profile of lower impact sports in the state. The Minister for Ageing, Tanya Davies, used the occasion to note that “sport is one of the greatest connectors of people and communities” and noted the government was committed to ensuring older people lead “healthy, active and happy lives”.

 

A first person perspective

When mother and grandmother Chris Bell, attended her first seniors ballet class in Brisbane in 2015, she shared the barre with seven others. Just two years later there are now 26 in the class with more appearing each week. The popularity of the class means session times have now been extended to 75 minutes and sometimes even longer with participants so reluctant for it to end they frequently head out to socialise at the conclusion of the class.

Chris, who fits her Sunday ballet class around numerous gym sessions involving a mix of weight training, cardio and personal training, says the thing she enjoys most about her ballet class is that there is no pressure to perform.

“We don’t have to feel we are in competition with each other - quite the opposite. We encourage each other, help newbies, have a lot of fun and laughter. No-one shouts at us either. If something is too much, we can adapt, we can sit out. And when we make mistakes, it’s a moment for joking, not remonstrating. It’s not just for old creaky ballet dancers, but for anyone who ever dreamed of dancing and never had the opportunity,” she says.

 

The benefits are real

Health professionals have long known that physical activity is a key contributor to lifelong independence and wellbeing. Credited with improving mobility, flexibility and functional ability, regular participation in activities such as modified sports can also help maintain bone strength, improve metabolic fitness, aid weight control and help in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer and type-2 diabetes.

But there are also numerous social and mental benefits to be had as well. Earlier this year the Queensland Ballet and QUT launched a joint project examining the health and wellbeing benefits of ballet for older Australians.

Professor Gene Moyle, head of the School of Creative Practice at QUT’s Creative Industries faculty, says the study – an Australian first – saw focus groups of participants in the classes interviewed and surveyed before and after a three-month ballet class program.

The project found the classes were making a difference for the older dancers physically, emotionally and mentally. Incorporating 10 Ballet for Seniors classes, the project revealed that participants experienced higher energy levels, greater flexibility, improved posture, and an enhanced sense of achievement. They also felt happier and enjoyed a sense of community and friendship.

“Participating in ballet classes led to positive wellbeing outcomes as perceived by the participants, particularly: feeling more energetic/animated, keeping in shape, bodily control/awareness, posture, flexibility, physical wellbeing, and overall wellbeing,” the report noted.

“Challenging movements and sequences led to an increased sense of achievement and happiness, suggesting that rising to challenges is more pleasurable than working at an already achievable level.”

Professor Moyle says the study not only helped students, but also assisted teachers in learning how they could adapt classes for seniors.

“We know that anecdotally, but it was really, really critical to actually put some evidence behind this and use it as a foundation for further research,” she says.

“What’s been really lovely to see is that it is making such a contribution to their lives broader than just what we’re looking at from a research perspective — the social connections and sense of community.”

 

Article originally published in Chapter magazine.

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