How to Maintain Motivation as Your Performances Decline with Age

It’s no secret that performance declines with age, but there’s many ways to stay motivated to continue to exercise despite what the raw numbers of your performance might say.

You can keep yourself fit and healthy by continuing to exercise as you age. There is a lot of research and empirical evidence supporting this claim. However, the one thing you can’t do is completely stop the ageing process and the impact in performance that comes with it.

Lifestyle factors play a big role in successful ageing. Many studies have compared master athletes to their sedentary peers and found that the former display lower blood pressure, increased strength, greater muscle mass, increased cardiovascular respiratory endurance, better bone density and better mobility and balance [1, 2, 3, 4].

Nevertheless, with ageing comes a decline in all those measures [5, 6].

While exceptions do exist, most people have to admit that, physiologically, they slowly move away from their prime with each decade that passes after their thirties.  

According to Sports Science Journalist Alex Hutchinson, with each decade that passes once a typically healthy adult goes past their 30s they will see “a 9 percent decrease in aerobic fitness (measured by the maximum amount of oxygen you’re able to process), a drop of seven beats in your maximum heart rate, and the loss of 10 percent of the muscle in your body.”

Some aspects of fitness are lost faster than others; research has found that endurance decreases faster than speed, and muscular power declines faster than absolute strength. Yet regardless of speed, it’s very likely your performances will take a hit as you mature in life.

To this day, it is impossible to stop the ageing process completely, but regular exercise can significantly slow down its effects and limiting factors.

master athletes can maintain motivation in many waysSource: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

How To Maintain Motivation to Exercise as Performances Decline

While staying healthy might be the priority of many athletes training after 40, staying motivated is also an important factor to consider, as this is a big element that determines how regularly you show up and how consistently you stick to your training plan.

Your individual motivation can take a big hit if you see your performances decreasing over time. Whether its seeing smaller numbers when it comes to strength and bigger numbers in endurance, it’s only natural to compare what we were able to do with how we perform now, which can be demoralising.

However, it is not yet clear whether master athletes’ desire to exercise decreases as they become more frail, or if they become slower and weaker as a result of training less. Either way, how to you stay motivated to exercise as you age?

Enjoy the sport you do

People who enjoy the sport they do are more likely to continue to perform it into their 50s and beyond.

Ask the vast majority of masters athletes why they continue training and they will tell you it’s because they love the sport they participate in.

Enjoyment is directly linked with motivation, partly because enjoyment takes the focus away from emplacements and achievements, and partly because interest contributes to intrinsic motivation, which in turn sustains the willingness to continue and persist in your activity.

motivated masters athleteSource: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc.
Ultrarunner Sharon Lapkoff at the 2013 CrossFit Games

Find a challenge

Lifestyle factors more than age might impact the decline of performances as you mature. If you’ve been sedentary your whole life the path ahead will be tougher than it is for someone who has exercised to some degree throughout their life.

As it gets harder to achieve certain physical feats, setting a challenge can deliver the motivation required to keep going, especially for athletes with a competitive nature.

Setting a challenge as you feel your performance decrease might sound contradictory, but what makes this a good source of motivation is ensuring the challenge is set relative to your current fitness level.

The key here is not to dwell on past performances and what your body used to be capable to do. Instead, focus on finding balance and celebrate what your body does for you in the here and now.

Setting realistic challenges brings with it a sense of success, which in turn can motivate you to continue exercising as the years go by. Long-term challenges can also work, but ensure you aim for the lowest hanging fruit on your path to the summit.

Be aware of your improvements in health and fitness

Empirical data in CrossFit shows that, if training is maintained, you can not only preserve your strength and fitness levels but also get stronger and fitter as you age.

Comparing raw strength and physical capacity of Master athletes that have competed in multiple age categories at the CrossFit Games show improvements over time.

The CrossFit Masters Preferred Course highlights Matt Swift, who lifted 245 lb (112 kg) as a 41-year-old in the thruster event at Regionals in 2011, and then lifted 275 lb (125 kg) as a 46-year old in the same event at the 2015 CrossFit Games.

That is a 10 percent improvement despite his being five years older and up an age category.

More recently, fitness journalist Emily Beers highlighted athletes competing at the CrossFit Games in their 50s and 60s, and illustrated how they’re “actively maintaining their fitness and in many cases, are continuing to see gains in some or all areas of the sport.”

“Kevin Koester has added 105 pounds to his back squat and 90 pounds to his deadlift in recent years, and at the age of 54 is ‘still seeing improvements,'” Beers reported.

Knowing that your prime might not have happened in your 30s, but that it is possible to continue to get fitter, can be a huge source of motivation to continue to exercise.

As mentioned before, some aspects of your fitness might decline more than others and it might be easier to maintain or improve on others, so set your priorities and focus on the fitness markers that matter to you (and that you enjoy, see first point).  

Through continuous training, athletes can elevate their health markers to well above average, so the decline in performance happens at a slower rate and remains above average at any point in life.

Train with others

Social factors can be incredibly important when trying to maintain motivation to train.

Whether your family keeps you in check, you find yourself training partners you don’t want to let down by not showing up, or become a part of a wider fitness community that keeps your spirits high, social pressure can be a crucial factor for motivation.

A healthy community can hugely influence your outlook and priorities, placing lower emphasis on your performances and a higher value on your consistency and the benefits that training brings with it.

Additionally, health and exercise habits have been found to be highly contagious, so surrounding yourself with people with similar values will lead to your continuous showing up and putting in the work.

master athletes maintain motivation to exercise by training with friendsSource: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

Set new priorities

Ultimately, numbers are not all that matter in sport. Setting new priorities when it comes to exercise if you see your performance decrease can be invaluable when staying motivated.

These new priorities can take many forms, such as:

  • Spending time with friends
  • Slowing down the ageing process
  • Performing an activity for the simple joy of it
  • Time to de-stress

It is perfectly acceptable for your performance focus to take a back seat, and for other reasons to do sport to become priorities.

master athlete about to back squatSource: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

How to maintain motivation as you age?

Motivation is a very personal cognitive force. It determines whether you initiate, continue or terminate an activity or behaviour at a particular time.

Losing motivation can lead to you stopping your exercise regime, which can have serious consequences as you age. Therefore, it is important you find a way to maintain motivation as the years go by.

This motivation can come in many forms. Ultimately, there’s no unique formula to maintain your enthusiasm for a certain activity, but using the tips above you can hopefully find new drive to continue to exercise with enthusiasm as you age.

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