Nutrition for Older Athletes

One hundred years ago, life expectancy was 42 years. Today, most of us will live twice as long. Without question, staying active is the key to main taining your health, both physical and mental. With age, we gain not only wrinkles and gray hair but also wisdom, an appreciation for our mortality, and the desire to protect our good health. You may know that maintaining fitness into the golden years reduces the inflammation that can lead to heart disease, but you might not know that staying fit likely reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease by 50 percent (Etnier et al. 2007).

If you are a masters athlete who has the desire to remain active for years to come, you may wonder if your nutrition needs differ from those of younger athletes. To date, research suggests that older athletes have no significantly different nutrition needs other than to optimize their sports diet so they'll have every possible edge over the younger folks. Your biggest nutrition concern should be to routinely eat quality calories from nutrient-dense, health-protective foods in order to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and other debilitating diseases of aging.

The last thing you want is to end up like Mickey Mantle, who once said, "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself." It's never too late to start eating well, exercising appropriately, and adding life to your years. Here are a few specific tips to help older athletes (and aging athletes—that is, all of us) create a winning food plan that's appropriate for every sport, including the sport of living life to its fullest.

Protein. As people age, their protein needs slightly increase—but not enough to have a separate protein recommendation for masters athletes. Just don't skimp on protein-rich foods. Be sure to eat protein with at least two meals per day to build, repair, and protect your muscles. Protein-rich fish—in particular salmon, tuna, and other oily fishes—offer health-protective fat that reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis. Target 8 ounces of oily fish per week (two servings).

Whether you are young or old, if you want to get the most from your workouts, plan to refuel soon after you finish. In a 12-week training study of 74-year-old men, the subjects who refueled with carbohydrate and protein immediately after each exercise session developed significantly bigger and stronger muscles than the control group, who delayed refueling for two hours after their workouts (Esmarck et al. 2001).

  1. Healthful plant and fish oils have a health-protective anti-inflammatory effect. Given that diseases of aging, such as heart disease and diabetes, are thought to be triggered by inflammation, consuming plant and fish oils that reduce inflammation is a wise choice. See chapter 2 for information on healthy fats.
  2. Even though your bones have stopped growing, they are still alive and need to be kept strong with resistance exercise and daily calcium. This advice applies to men as well as women. By selecting a calcium-rich food at each meal (including soy or lactose-free milk products), you'll invest in bone health. Having strong muscles attached to the bones is also essential, so be sure to do strengthening exercises such as lifting weights at least twice a week.
  3. Eat enough fiber-rich foods to have regular bowel movements; this not only enhances sports comfort but also invests in good health. The fiber in oatmeal, for example, reduces cholesterol and risk of heart disease.
  4. The best all-natural sources of vitamins are colorful fruits and vegetables; eat a rainbow of produce. By keeping active and exercising, you can eat more calories—and more vitamin-rich fruits and veggies. These wholesome foods offer compounds that work synergistically and are more powerful than vitamin pills.

Supplementing antioxidant vitamins such as C and E is popular among masters athletes, but research has yet to support this practice. The body responds to extra exercise by making extra antioxidants.

Fluids. The older you get, the less sensitive your thirst mechanism becomes. That is, you may need fluids but may not feel thirsty. To reduce the risk of chronic hypohydration, drink enough so that you urinate every three to four hours. See chapter 8 for more information on how to stay well hydrated.

The bottom line: Eat wisely, drink plenty of fluids, exercise regularly, lift weights, refuel rapidly, and enjoy feeling young. Let wholesome food and enjoyable exercise be your winning edge!

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