Female Athletes through the Lifespan | Adulthood and Older Adults

by Samantha Eakes, DPT

The female body experiences unique changes throughout development that can present certain challenges for physical activity and injuries. Helping people understand and work through these often-overlooked issues is something I’m passionate about as a physical therapist. I hope this information is useful not just to female athletes, but parents, coaches, and others. While this series focuses on the female athlete, most of the info presented is relevant to the general population. Click the links, below, to read our earlier articles on this topic.

Younger girls Ages 4-10

Adolescents Ages 11-17

To conclude this series, I want to talk about adulthood, including older adults (65+). As we continue to age, many of us may not consider ourselves “athletes” in the traditional sense but still have a desire to participate in sport for fun or to just maintain a certain level of activity. Changes that occur in our body as we age can present us with some challenges that can affect our desire for continued activity.

What Happens as We Get Older?  After age 30, there is a decline in athletic performance, even among high-level athletes. This decline is accompanied by a reduction in muscle strength and power due to decreased muscle mass, nervous system changes, hormonal changes, nutritional issues, or changes in physical activity. These changes persist as we continue to age and can include decreased bone density and strength, decreased metabolism, memory changes, decreased heart and lung efficiency, and continued decreased muscle mass. All these changes have a bearing on our overall activity levels. Additionally, women may experience pregnancy and eventually menopause, both of which can bring about barriers to activity. During menopause, as the ovaries gradually decrease their function, the estrogen and progesterone levels decrease. These hormonal changes affect more than just the reproductive system and a number of symptoms can be experienced such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, fatigue, anxiety, sleep disturbances, memory loss, reduced libido, mood swings, and irritability. The body will also experience changes such as decreased lean muscle mass and increased fat centrally to the body. The decrease in estrogen also affects the inflammatory response that is essential to healing and slower rates of healing may occur. Postmenopausal women have been found to have an increased incidence in certain musculoskeletal injuries including rotator cuff pathology and frozen shoulder. Studies have shown that regular physical activity, including both aerobic and strength training, can help with the negative effects of menopause including muscle loss, weight gain, and even mood.  Other than the physical changes, adults and older adults have a number of other aspects of our lives such as our jobs, families, and everyday stresses that can limit physical activity.

Exercise recommendations According to the American Heart Association and CDC, adults should partake in moderate intensity physical activity for at least 30 minutes on most (preferably all) days of the week, for a total of 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. While aerobic exercise is very important for heart and lung health, adults who would like to remain active and healthy should also include regular strengthening. Strength exercises should include core and postural strengthening as well as balance work. Regular exercise can slow the general effects of aging and can help prevent injuries.

Along with these recommendations, your exercise routine should also be specific to you, your body and your current activity goals. Injuries for adults (especially those still participating in regular athletic activities or recreational sports) are similar to mature teens and so is the prevention. Active adults may benefit from hip, core, scapular strength exercises as well as practicing proper body mechanics.

Considerations for Aging As we get older, our regular physical activity may change and our activity goals may be modified. For an older population, regular physical activity is associated with a decrease in mortality rate and can delay disability and other changes associated with aging, can improve quality of life, mood, and independence, and can reduce falls. However, the older we become, the more considerations must be addressed. Here, comorbidities, exercise history, and nutritional factors are among the issues we must consider before undertaking an exercise program.

Prevention and Physical Therapy Throughout our lives, injuries will happen and pain can occur but we need to find ways to keep moving. If an injury or pain limits your ability to move and stay active, or if you just wish to be more active or improve your strength but are unsure how, PT can help! Physical therapy is a great way to help individuals begin or maintain an active life. Physical therapists are the medical community’s experts in musculoskeletal movement.  Working with one of our PTs can help improve your strength, posture, balance, or mobility, and educate you to allow for independence with maintaining physical activity.  If you do have a barrier to movement or regular activity, seek help early–don’t let your pain sideline you from living your life. If you need to talk with a physical therapist about how we can help, call us at (815) 758-5508 to schedule a free consultation.

A former NIU Volleyball player, Sam Eakes still plays, trains and remains athletically active. Sports therapy is an area of specialty, with a particular interest in helping female athletes heal and reach their highest potential.

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