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It’s Never Too Late to Find Your Inner Athlete

Sports participation offers physical and psychological benefits at any age

By Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, PhD

In August, when the 2016 Summer Olympics open in Rio de Janeiro, we’ll all be amazed by the athletic feats of these world-class athletes. Still, as we watch them leap, zoom, and hurl, we know that these are young people who’ve spent much of their lives in training.

We all know that exercise is good for us, and that even a moderate amount of regular exercise yields both physical and psychological health benefits. (Read my earlier blog post for more about the benefits of exercise, and guidelines on how to get started). Still, exercise and competitive sports can feel like they are worlds apart, and if you’ve never considered yourself an athlete, it may feel like it’s too late to change that part of your self-concept. If you consider the inspirational work of master athletes, though, you realize that it’s never too late to become an athlete – and that finding your sport can bring a variety of physical and psychological benefits, including an opportunity for fun!

Consider, for instance, the amazing story of Olga Kotelko, the Canadian master athlete featured in Bruce Grierson’s best-seller What Makes Olga Run. Kotelko didn’t begin competitive sports until her 70s; and yet, during her 70s, 80s, and 90s, she set 37 world records in track and field events. When she was 93, Kotelko participated with the neuroscientists at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois for a variety of tests, including MRI, and ongoing research indicates the potentially powerful effects of sports participation in keeping the brain healthy into old age.

Kotelko’s brain structure, in her 90s, was as healthy as someone in their 60s – learning new things, and engaging her physical body in skill training, seemed to have been a fountain of youth that kept Kotelko intellectually sharp and engaged until the end of her life. Prevention Magazine offers an overview of the research. Other research has found that sports participation in adulthood is related to a variety of physical and psychological benefits, including increased physical activity, reduced stress, and improved psychosocial connections. In other words: playing sports is a way that we can get fit, have fun, and make connections with other people.

Kotelko is only one of the many amazing master athletes who help us remember that we can be fit, strong, and capable at any age. Award-winning photographer Rob Jerome captures master athletes as they set records. For those attending the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in Denver this summer, APA’s Committee on Aging’s conversation hour will feature Jerome and his work. Learn more about how master athletes encourage us all to push faster, higher, and farther, both in sports and in our lives in general. If you can’t make it to the conversation hour, you can check out Jerome’s photos of master athletes at the 2016 USATF Indoor Masters or his 2009 presentation of master athletes over the age of 80 at a world championship event.

Do you want to find your inner athlete?

  1. Aspiring swimmers should check out the US Masters Swimming Association, which offers a range of information for a variety of ability levels. You can find adult swimming lessons, get connected with training programs for competitive swimmers, and find local area resources to help you get started.

  2. If track and field events are more your style, including race walking, then check out the USA Track and Field Master’s program for resources and support.

  3. The USA Tennis Association provides support and information dedicated to adult athletes interested in getting started, or improving their game, on the tennis court. You may also find Lee Bergquist’s book Second Wind: The Rise of the Ageless Athlete inspiring as you get going.

  4. Ready to see some Masters Athletes at their best (or even to give it a go with them)? Consider attending the 2016 World Masters Athletics Championships, held October 26 to November 6, 2016 in Perth, Australia. Can you think of a more exciting reason to travel down under?


Dr. Kimberlee Bethany Bonura is the Division 47 (Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology) representative to APA’s Council on Aging (CONA). Dr. Bonura is a fitness and wellness educator; her work focuses on the benefits of exercise for health and wellness promotion. She is a contributing faculty member in the Walden University College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and a Professor for The Great Courses. Learn more at and and contact Dr. Bonura at

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