Masters athletes are unique because they continue to train and compete well into old age. It appears that this continued involvement in sport has its benefits. Sport scientists [19, 49, 50] have suggested that prolonged training by Masters athletes plays a critical role in the maintenance of athletic performance even in the face of predicted age-related decline. The physiological changes that occur with age are well documented—age changes for maximal heart rate  and aerobic capacities [52–54] are significant. Yet, age-related physiological decline is not as severe in Masters athletes.
Pollock et al.  investigated the aerobic capacity and body composition of Masters track athletes and evaluated the relationship to age and maintenance of training over a 10-year period. Competitive athletes who maintained their training intensity over the 10-year period prior showed no significant changes in aerobic capacity, whereas individuals who reduced their training intensity showed a significant decline. A similar study by Hagberg et al.  compared older elite runners to their sedentary peers and to younger elite runners. The older sedentary subjects exhibited a maximal oxygen uptake that was 47% lower than Masters athletes’; furthermore, most of the difference between Masters athletes and younger elite runners was attributable to the lower maximal heart rate exhibited by the Masters. Combined, the results from Hagberg et al. and Pollock et al. demonstrate that maintaining training intensity helps individuals sustain a higher level of aerobic performance with aging.
Much of the evidence pertaining to Masters athletes illustrates they are the physical elite and ‘best preserved’ of their age cohorts; however, these examinations have been largely physiological in nature. A more critical question for the current review is whether involvement in Masters sport provides additional psychosocial benefits akin to those suggested for youth involvement in sport and whether those effects go beyond those derived from general engagement in physical activity. There is a paucity of research considering this issue; however, the results have been largely consistent and provide a fertile ground for further work in this area. The following discussion suggests sport participation can facilitate positive development in older adults by negotiating the aging process, providing continued motivation for physical activity, and challenging age-related stereotypes.
Helps negotiate the aging process
Qualitative research by Dionigi [21, 22, 31, 56, 57] highlights how sport participation can assist the management of an aging identity. Dionigi conducted short semi-structured interviews with 110 Masters athletes (aged 55–94; even gender split) at the Eighth Australian Masters Games and held in-depth interviews with 28 athletes (15 women, 13 men, aged 60–89) who had competed in these Games. The themes to emerge from this research were common across participants, regardless of individual differences (i.e., age, gender, team sport or individual event, exercise history). Discussions with these older athletes about why they compete in sport and what it means to them revealed that participation in Masters sport was a key strategy for negotiating the aging process. The participants’ words and actions relating to the management of aging reflected two broad (interacting) themes: “I’m out here and I can do this!” and “Use it or lose it.”
“I’m out here and I can do this!” describes how the older participants in Dionigi’s study perceived themselves as ‘an exception to the rule.’ That is, they set themselves apart from ‘other’ inactive older people and expressed pride in the belief that they were different to the ‘stereotypical’ older person (i.e., someone who is frail, dependent, lonely, ill, and most likely living in an aged care facility). Many felt that competing in Masters sport kept them “young” because they were connecting with and competing against younger people, maintaining physical, mental, and social health, and were fully engaged in life. For the majority of participants, “the satisfaction of knowing that [they were] not losing it” was extremely important. In other words, by monitoring their performance in the context of sport, the participants demonstrated that “I can still do it [i.e., compete]! I’m not too old.” In particular, some participants described how they challenged themselves and pushed their body to its limit in order to get the greatest health benefits from their sport participation. These feelings of strength, confidence, and competency generalized into an overall perceived sense of control and independence, which was encapsulated in the common phrase, “I can do everything I want to.” All of the above feelings and experiences indicated to the older athletes (and others) that they were adapting to the aging process and not yet experiencing ill health, disability, isolation, or dependency in old age.
As a result, the participants expressed a sense of personal empowerment and control over their body and lives that they saw as direct benefits of their involvement in competitive sport. This finding highlights that their sport participation is (in part) a story of resilience, enthusiasm, pride, determination, lives well lived, and lives lived to their potential. Furthermore, the older athletes constructed and perceived themselves as a person of ‘social worth’ who is conscientious about maintaining good health, helping to reduce health care costs, capable of success in competition, and deserving of public recognition.
On the other hand, the “Use it or lose it” theme points to the tenuous nature of these feelings of competency, connectedness, confidence, satisfaction, and personal empowerment and highlights the many concerns older people express about aging. All of the participants in Dionigi’s study indicated a desire to fight the aging process (i.e., use their mind and body as much and for as long as possible) by remaining competitive in sport. In the words of the participants, they were strongly motivated by the concern that if they stopped being active through sport they will become “old,” “rusty,” “age badly,” “dependent on others,” or “end up in [an aged care] home.” Underlying their participation in sport were beliefs that they were “making these latter years as enjoyable as [they] can by keeping fit” or “setting [their] own quality of life by being fit and active.” These findings are supported in other work examining older persons’ sport participation. For example, Max, an 88-year-old runner from the study by Roper et al.  said that his competitive running career was predominantly linked to leading a healthy lifestyle. Similarly, Phoenix and Sparkes  found that for Fred, a 70-year-old Veteran football/soccer player, “being fit and healthy” was a key factor in his construction of a positive aging identity.
Many older athletes believe that if they lose their “physical ability,” they will also lose their independence, health, sense of control over their life, and sense of self. Many older athletes recognize that fragility, dependency, and illness are possible outcomes of long life. Simultaneously, however, they express the undesirability of these ‘risks’ and believe that one should attempt to delay their onset for as long as possible—with competitive sport being one practice to avoid or delay these potential threats. For some participants, this meant they were “turning a blind eye” to the possibilities of aging by remaining extremely active and competing in sport until a factor beyond their control stopped them. A minority of participants said that they would rather “die on the court” or in the field of play in an attempt to avoid ill health and dependency in old age altogether. The majority of participants, however, adopted the “it’s life” attitude and spoke of the necessity to “keep going” for as long possible in order to make the most out of life in the time that remained. As one female athlete said, “keep battling on…you have just got to face life and make the most of it.” This latter finding indicates an acceptance of aging and a return to the idea that these individuals are adapting to the aging process by experiencing a sense of challenge, growth, and enjoyment in the context of sport (and beyond). Evidently, sport can help older persons fight/resist, monitor, adapt to, avoid, and/or accept the aging process. In other words, participation in sport has the potential to assist in the process of negotiating an aging identity.
Provides continued motivation for physical activity
Given the robust relationship between continued involvement in physical activity and maintenance of physical and cognitive functioning , possession of an adaptive exercise motivational profile is a desirable quality for older persons. Motivation research conducted on Masters athletes thus far suggests they participate in sport for many reasons, including enjoyment, desire for personal achievement and winning, social affiliation and recognition, and health and fitness reasons . The accumulated findings provide valuable insight into the motives behind Masters athletes’ participation. The conclusions are limited, however, because most studies were exploratory in nature and conducted mainly in recreational rather than competitive sport settings. For instance, a recent study  found that recreational Masters marathon runners reported a greater degree of functional commitment, which was related to feelings of satisfaction and opportunities associated with participation in Masters sport (e.g., health or social benefits). Findings from a review of the literature on the motives and perceived benefits of older persons’ involvement in competitive (rather than recreational) sport by Dionigi  suggest that Masters athletes have an adaptive motivation profile for continued physical activity. However, additional research in this area is critical.
The nature of a Masters athlete’s commitment can be derived from the persistence of behavior motivated through either volitional feelings of personal preference or a sense of external control and compulsion . Scanlan et al.  suggested that there were two major reasons why an individual would commit to sport participation, ‘because they want to’ continue participating and ‘because they have to’. Feelings of enjoyment and self-identification with the activity reflect functional commitment which is adaptive, whereas social pressures or constraints may lead to a feeling of obligatory commitment which is maladaptive. Weiss and Ferrer-Caja  found a higher burnout rate for individuals who reported feeling compelled to continue participating in their sport (i.e., who participated because ‘they have to’).
In relating these general studies on motivation and commitment in sport to older persons, it could be argued that socio-cultural pressure, such as current health promotion and its link to ‘successful aging’, if internalized, can make an older person feel that ‘they have to’ keep physically, mentally, and socially active in order to ‘age well’. Many older people believe that competing in Masters sport is one way they can achieve the goal of aging ‘successfully’ . For example, the common ‘use it or lose it’ catch-phrase used by older Masters athletes (discussed above) indicates a desire to use the body and mind as much as possible before one inevitably loses these abilities due to aging. In other words, many older athletes (regardless of when they started or how long they have been competing) simultaneously feel ‘they have to’ and ‘want to’ play sport to (a) continue an active, healthy, happy, and engaged life, and (b) avoid ill health, disability, dependency, and isolation in old age [21, 56]. However, the maintenance of intense physical activity may indicate a denial of existential issues (e.g., self-reflection on the meaning of life, bodily limitations, ill health, and death) which could pose challenges to identity management and development in later life [29, 30].
Challenges age-related stereotypes
Some researchers have suggested that Masters athletes are important role models for an aging society. Levy and Banaji  noted the potential of these ‘exemplars’ to influence societal attitudes towards the elderly. Indeed, older individuals who accomplish remarkable athletic feats are often profiled in the popular media, which may influence the way that society as a whole views the elderly and the aging process. Less clear, however, is how these aging athletes affect other seniors. Ory et al.  suggested that elite-level Masters athletes were likely to intimidate others in the same age cohort, potentially discouraging them from partaking in physical activity. The authors indicated that seniors were most likely to respond positively to images of exercise that included social interaction (i.e., seniors out for a walk with friends) and featured ordinary people doing ordinary things. Subsequent research by Horton and colleagues  adds some complexity to these assertions. Qualitative interviews with seniors investigated their reactions to an elite Masters level runner. Reactions fell into three distinct groups: (a) those who found his example inspirational, (b) those who thought that he might be inspirational for a certain group of seniors who were already moderately active, and (c) those who found his example distinctly unappealing.
Generally speaking, there was a slight tendency for participants who reported more daily physical activity in their own lives to categorize the elite athlete as an appropriate role model for seniors. There were, however, exceptions to this—sedentary participants who considered him inspirational, and active participants who did not. In fact, one participant, who reported walking 2 h per day and working out with weights on a daily basis, considered the image of the elite athlete to be distinctly unappealing: “I look at him as an aberration. I mean… to look at the picture to me is almost stressful to look at. No, that doesn’t do anything for me. It turns me right off.” Further examination of how seniors react to exemplars of physical fitness from their own age group is an intriguing area of future research, particularly considering current demographic trends, the prevalence of sedentary lifestyles in older populations, and the health consequences of such lifestyles .