After three years of high-school soccer and a year in a college intramural league, Sarah Jerome figured her athletic career had peaked. But like millions of other adults who enjoy sports too much to give them up, she decided to join a coed soccer league.
Now 40, Jerome has torn two knee ligaments and has seen teammates succumb to broken limbs, facial fractures, concussions, and stitches, as well as numerous strains and sprains. Still, she continues to play soccer three days a week and says she feels fitter than ever.
“When I was in rehab, my orthopedic surgeon said, ‘You can sit on the couch and eat potato chips and take on a whole set of health risks associated with that, or you can decide to do what you want to do,’” says Jerome. “When he put it that way, it seemed obvious. I never enjoyed running. Team sports are just leaps and bounds more fun.”
More than 35 million adults played team sports in 2012, including hockey, softball, and ultimate Frisbee, according to a report by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. But do the benefits of such activity outweigh the risks? It’s a question posed again and again to Brad Nelson, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Minnesota and TRIA Orthopedic Center in Minneapolis. From a health perspective, he says, the answer is complicated.
There’s no doubt that exercise is good, and there is plenty of evidence that people who elevate their heart rates for 30 to 45 minutes five or six days a week benefit from better cardiovascular health and even live longer than couch potatoes, Nelson says. A brisk lunchtime walk or spin on the elliptical machine is enough to meet those guidelines, but vigorous sports such as soccer, basketball, and hockey can motivate people to get moving in a way that treadmills often can’t. (Softball, kickball, and other more sedentary sports may not get people moving enough to make a cardiovascular difference).
Even though some athletes manage to perform well into their 40s and beyond, age generally brings a decline in muscle mass alongside degeneration in the fibers that specialize in explosive force and a drop in overall fitness—all of which increase the risk for injuries, says Stacy Ingraham, an exercise physiologist at the University of Minnesota. When middle-aged athletes then try to push themselves like they did when they were teenagers, they often end up overloading tendons and straining muscles.
Recovery can be slow going, in part because of aging-related declines in human growth hormone. “We heal the age we are,” Ingraham says. “We don’t heal brand-new. The properties of soft tissue are different in somebody who’s 40 versus someone with a tear at 15.” To reduce the risk of injury, adult sports enthusiasts should maintain fitness through a regular exercise routine and prioritize a pre-game warm-up.
Aching bodies aside, perhaps the greatest benefits of playing sports in adulthood come from the camaraderie of being part of a team. Jerome and her soccer friends go out after games, invite each other to weddings, and even travel internationally to watch professional soccer matches. Studies show that people with strong social networks live significantly longer. “Anecdotally, we see how happy people get when they are having experiences with other people,” says Pat Barbatsis, manager of CitiesSportsConnection, one of the state’s largest organizers of adult sports leagues. “I think the emotional-health piece is as big of an impact as the physical-health piece.”
Just staying in the game can go a long way toward preserving a youthful self-image, Nelson adds. “Something about giving up sports as you get older makes you feel older,” he says. Lacing up your cleats again after, say, recovering from a torn ACL “may not be the best thing for your knee, but it may be the best thing for you.”