Nobody has ever mistaken me for any kind of an athlete — unless maybe you count chess. At 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, with an average physique, bald and wearing glasses, I more likely resemble a highly determined actuary. Plus, a potential dealbreaker here, I’m 67.
Since 1977, I’ve played almost exclusively in the playground at Russell Sage Junior High School, right around the corner from the apartment complex where I live in Forest Hills, Queens. I’m now at least twice as old as most other players in the catch-as-catch-can pickup games out there — anyone can join in, but it’s predominantly kids and young adults from the neighborhood — and more likely three and even four times older. Some kids now address me as “mister” or “sir.” I have false teeth older than some teenagers. They’re still going through puberty while I’m getting colonoscopies.
“More people over age 50 than ever before are now active athletically,” says Michael Rogers, a professor in the Department of Human Performance Studies and director of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University. “They grew up participating in athletics more than previous generations, and so now have more interest in continuing with it, even past age 80 or 90.”
If age is any indication, though, it’s unlikely I’ll be going at it like this for all that much longer. Time is fast running out on me. I’m nearing my expiration date. Eventually, inevitably, I’ll have to decide to stop playing. Mostly it will depend on whether I can still find good reasons to stick with it. Through the decades, my reasons for playing this game keep changing.
In my 20s, my motivation was to improve, to refine my techniques. In my 30s, I played out of curiosity to see how much better I might still get if I kept pushing myself, imagining myself raining jumpers from the top of the key and slashing through the paint on drives to the basket.
In my 40s, I played mainly to keep myself in decent working order, and also because it cleared my head of all the clutter that accumulated from work and fatherhood. Besides, it helped me sleep more soundly. By my 50s, I played because I was hooked on hoops, craving the adrenaline rush. As I entered my 60s, I played to get more return on investment, the dividends for my long-standing commitment, and to see if my luck would hold out and I could somehow pull off a shot or move I’ve never done before.
I never expected to be going at it out there for nearly so long. At 30, I figured I might last until 35 or 40; at 40, 45 or 50; at 50, 55 or 60, and so on. I’ve kept revising my projections upward. No one is more surprised at the outcome to date — nor grateful — than I.
“Physical changes accelerate after age 65 or so,” says Alfred Gellhorn, director of sports medicine in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. “By your late 60s, your muscle mass and endurance strength decline about 25 percent, and by age 80 as much as 50 percent. But weight training can prevent or even reverse those declines — to a degree.” He sees more patients 70- and even 80-plus maintaining vigorous athletic schedules, even, in some cases, despite chronic diseases such as osteoarthritis and other adversities such as hip and knee replacements.
It’s only natural that at age 67 I experience certain technical difficulties. My body has long since begun its gradual betrayal. I’m at least half an inch shorter now. My vertical leap, never exactly Olympian, now hovers in the single digits. So the only rebounds I get are those that come directly to me rather than those I have to go after. The grunting I sometimes hear is me bending low to grab for a loose ball.
I usually arrive at the basketball courts feeling stiff, sore and slow. Before any serious game, I warm up with going-through-the-motions routines for at least 15 to 30 minutes just to loosen my joints. My lower back tends to tighten if I play hard for much longer than about 45 minutes. Over the past half-century, I’ve suffered twisted ankles, sprained hamstrings, jammed fingers, a torn meniscus in my left knee, a touch of osteoarthritis and even a detached retina. Occasionally, I wonder whether I should be accompanied to every contest by a paramedic.
Sign up for Bold School, a newsletter series that helps you approach life after 50 with curiosity and enthusiasm
But I do most everything I know how to do to stay in training. Every winter for 30 years, I climbed the steps in our 22-story apartment building, going up and down four, five, six times to sharpen my footwork and tax my heart and lungs. I lift dumbbells and do crunches and punch away at a heavy bag in the gym in our basement. I take long walks around our neighborhood, here and there breaking into a short sprint. I follow a pretty strict diet, seldom overeating and often going with salmon, spinach, roasted chicken, broccoli, bananas, blueberries, walnuts and the like.
“The key to longevity is consistency and regularity and taking few long breaks,” says Summer Cook, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire. “If you stop playing, you might never get back to it — and it could be harder to do so because people already active have more fitness to lose than the inactive. Listen to your body. Knowing how hard to push yourself is a skill that comes with a lifetime of experience.”
“It’s unnecessary as an older athlete to train hard to get results,” explains Jack Daniels, exercise scientist, running coach and two-time Olympic medalist in the modern pentathlon. “Less is more. So avoid overtraining. Doing aerobics for about 30 minutes a day is ideal. But you plateau after 30 minutes — it’s a mistake to believe 60 minutes is twice as good as 30.” At age 86, he runs two miles a day and lifts weights three days a week for 30 minutes at a time.
I’ve already decided I’m going to keep going out there only if I can still hold my own. I’ll have to be a threat to score if I have the ball in my hands. The opponent I’m guarding should be at least a little worried that I can stop him in his tracks. I have to maintain the competitive standard I’ve set for myself. Otherwise, I’ll start grading myself on a curve, and to me that’s cheating.
So what’s going to keep me playing now?
Certain reasons never change. I play because in a life that’s almost exclusively mental, it feels good to get physical; because I’ve never forgotten how it feels to be the last player picked and it’s as if I’m still trying to make the cut for that eighth-grade team; because in an existence that often feels premeditated, I need an occasional blast of spontaneity; because you’re never too old to act young and frisky; and, finally, because we should all do our utmost, and by any means necessary, to detain death. For me basketball is more of a lifeline than ever.
“Mind-set has a lot to do with motivating people to achieve athletic longevity,” says Scott Trappe, professor of human bioenergetics and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University. “It’s a lifestyle, being an athlete. The benefits of keeping yourself going are psychological, even therapeutic.”
Other keys to staying with it culled from experts? Keep your fitness routine well-rounded through cross-training, occasionally trying something different from what you’ve always done (I now play some tennis, too). Follow the latest research being reported, now that so much reliable information is available (you could start with the latest guidelines about exercise for older adults from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association).
Take advantage, too, of improvements in athletic equipment, such as running shoes, as well as advances in technology, such as Fitbit, that give you feedback on your performance. Go for an intensity level of 6 or 7 on a scale of 1 to 10 to reap the best benefits. Remember that with age your body becomes wise about how much it can do as well as its limitations. Find the dose of activity that’s just right for you through trial and error. And always, especially after hard workouts, give yourself plenty of opportunity to rest and recover.
As an athletic Methuselah, I have a different attitude toward playing basketball now.
I no longer worry about anything. I take setbacks in stride. I joke around more out there now, usually about myself. If an opponent makes me look hapless, I accuse him of having no respect for his elders. If I’m breathing hard, I’ll ask for an oxygen mask. Sometimes I leave the courts saying I have to get home to oil my wheelchair.
Once, some kids tried to convince me to play just one more game. “Sorry,” I said, “I have to get back to my nursing home before curfew.” One young man, obviously quite gullible, asked, “You live in a nursing home?” I had to explain I was just kidding.
Sixteen months ago, I discovered yet another incentive to keep playing: I became a grandfather. So call me Grandpa Hoops. Suddenly I have no choice but for the show to go on. My dear Lucia may someday need me to teach her how to hold her own out there.
Bob Brody, a consultant and essayist in New York, is author of the memoir “Playing Catch With Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes Of Age.”