When I talked with 76-year-old Sylvia Okala for an article about thriving older tennis players last August, she said that though she prefers to sleep late, she would get up at 5:30 a.m. to prepare for a match. Then the pandemic hit, and the U.S. Tennis Association suspended all activities in March. Okala can sleep in as much as she wants, but, “Oh my God, I miss it,” she said. The Washington, D.C., resident was used to playing four times per week.

“Without competitive tennis, there’s no goal to make me practice and stay in shape,” she said.

Although the media has heavily covered the interruptions to the Olympics, and to collegiate and professional sports, older amateur athletes might be even more affected, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging that seniors take extra precautions. Asked how they’re maintaining their well-being despite the disruption of their leagues and routines, several seniors revealed strategies for overcoming adversity, regardless of one’s age or athletic ability. 

Exercise patience

A prolonged gap in exercise is a blow to anyone’s fitness, but particularly for seniors, who may see a rapid falloff. “A decrease in type two, fast-twitch muscle fibers [involved in sprinting and power] can begin to be observed after three to four weeks,” said Robert Mazzeo, a professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The “detraining effect” for aerobic endurance is even faster than for musculature. “If [older] people haven’t been keeping up, they lose ground, and we often see they can’t quite get it back,” added Louise Aronson, a geriatrician and professor at the University of California at San Francisco.

Okala has had this going for her: a live-in tennis partner, her husband. They played when possible, but when the courts were closed, she resorted to hitting the ball against a utility building near her home.

“Just anything to keep a racket in my hand,” she said. “We were so desperate.”

Late in May, public courts reopened. Although the USTA recommends that the elderly continue to avoid tennis, Okala returned, practicing social distancing for safety. But she had another concern: “I worried I wouldn’t be able to get back.” Her movement has gradually improved over several matches — the payoff for a lifetime of investing in physical activity, Mazzeo said. He noted that the resilience of very active seniors to layoffs is comparable to that of much younger people not as committed to fitness.

Remember past resilience

Tennis player Bob Litwin, 72, trained hard going into 2020. Undefeated last year, he was excited to extend his streak. Instead, he’s in isolation at home in Boulder, Colo., wondering about the future. “A year away from the sport [would be] a large percentage of the years I’ll be playing,” he said.

He’s also looking to the past, because, in a way, he has been here before. A decade ago, dual misfortunes struck: His wife lost her fight with cancer months before he underwent reconstructive hip surgery. Litwin couldn’t play for two years, yet the game’s lessons pulled him through. “For 30 years, I’d been training my spiritual, mental and emotional resources to win tennis matches,” he said. “Little did I know, this was training for my biggest and toughest match.” His habits for maintaining longevity and resilience on the court — meditation, mindfulness and telling himself stories about the person he wanted to be — also spurred optimism in the face of personal tragedy.

During the pandemic, Litwin, who has remarried, is drawing on these strengths again, recognizing that the hardships of the closures and staying at home are outside his control. This acceptance, cultivated partly through tennis, in his case, might be called “the wisdom of sports,” said psychiatry professor Dilip Jeste, who directs the Stein Institute for Research on Aging at the University of California at San Diego. Jeste studies subcomponents of wisdom, such as emotional regulation and related brain regions. “Wisdom increases with experience,” he said. Unlike the pandemic, injuries and aging itself, “some things we can control — how satisfied we are, our response to stressors. That we can practice.”

Though many in Litwin’s community have resumed play, he’s holding off. His tennis partners are typically in their 50s, and “their risk isn’t as high as mine. I don’t trust others’ definitions of distancing.” Meanwhile, he’s staying in shape by using resistance bands for strength training and hitting tennis balls against the wall with his wife. He’s also FaceTiming with clients as a performance coach and with tennis friends every day. “I’ve been away from it before. The relationships never really change.”

Find a new purpose

In 2000, at age 62, JoAnn Sampson of Hallandale Beach, Fla., retired from her first love, teaching, and thought, “Oh my God, what am I going to do now?”

She saw an article on runners at the National Senior Games and recalled that her high school in inner-city Miami hadn’t offered a girls track team. Yet, she heard a soft voice in her head: “You can do this.”

That voice knew its stuff. She improved quickly, qualifying for national events and winning numerous medals. In 2017, she ran the second-fastest 50-meter dash in the country for her age group. In the process of becoming a runner, she revived her passion for teaching, recruiting other seniors to play sports and giving motivational speeches to churches and schoolchildren in poor neighborhoods.

“They can’t believe I’m 79. I say my age has nothing to do with it,” she said. “No matter your age or where you come from, it’s your heart that matters.”

Finding a new purpose is important for many older people — perhaps especially during the pandemic. “Being uncomfortable is good for you,” said Dawn Carr, a sociologist with Florida State University’s Institute on Aging and Public Policy. “You’re stimulating your brain as part of developing and learning.” Jeste noted that new cognitive and physical challenges spur neuroplasticity — the ability of brain cells to change — which can slow cognitive decline.

This year, Sampson’s competitions and speeches have been canceled, but she still talks with her strength trainer by phone, following his routines, such as jumping rope, in her backyard. She’s staying upbeat — perhaps not by coincidence. Preliminary, pre-peer review survey data found a link between improved mental health and exercise while sheltering during the pandemic. “Exercising can be as effective at treating depression as an antidepressant,” said co-author Jacob Meyer, an assistant of professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University.

Sampson is jogging, too, though she hasn’t resumed sprinting yet. “I’m taking it slow, just doing what I can, so I can be here helping people. Because that’s my purpose.”

Tending her garden of tomatoes and pineapples, she dreams of next year’s National Senior Games. “I have to be strong for my grandkids,” she said. “They’re so proud of their grandma.” With the 2021 Games in nearby Fort Lauderdale, they’ll watch her go for No. 1. “I like that. I’ll hear them calling my name.”

Maintain structure

When the city of Houston shut down in March, DeEtte Sauer’s response was swift: “I told my husband we’re going to have structure. We’re not going to sit on the couch and watch TV.” 

Structure has been Sauer’s middle name since 1986, when she went all-in on healthful living. After addictions to drugs and alcohol, she had become morbidly obese, so she joined a masters swim team and progressed from swimming about 10 feet to ranking fourth in the world in the 200-meter butterfly, while occasionally beating former Olympians. In 2017, she captured her first national gold medal for ages 75 to 79.

“In the water, you feel so young again,” she said. “You’re not fighting gravity. You’re so free.” Like Sampson and Litwin, she shared her passion by leading adult swim classes.

When her pool closed, the biggest loss was her swim team colleagues, with whom she’d practiced at 5:30 every morning for decades. That structure and discipline now had to come from within. She started walking three to five miles daily; gardened with her husband; and concentrated on cooking healthful meals — spatula in one hand, five-pound weight in the other to do triceps and biceps curls, “slowly, so it’s working the muscles.” Her regimen each day, informed by her team and coach via text link, includes band work for strength and 200 situps on an exercise ball.

Meanwhile, she’s continuing her volunteer efforts with the school system to teach children who are behind on reading. Last summer, she held a book club at a yogurt shop; this summer, it’ll occur over Zoom. She’s learning Spanish to better communicate with the students, many of whom are Hispanic.

Whether swimming, sustaining fitness or supporting others, she believes in “aging fiercely,” not gracefully. “We lump old age into a singular category,” observed Aronson, the geriatrician, who also is Pulitzer finalist, “but being old doesn’t mean you’re in a nursing home.” With the pandemic adding to loneliness and possibly increasing deaths linked to despair, healthy, well-resourced individuals are positioned to help, regardless of their age. “I get so frustrated at people saying they’re bored,” Sauer said. “Start thinking about what you’ve been given and what you can contribute.”

Matt Fuchs lives in Silver Spring, Md., and writes about health and culture. Follow him on Twitter.