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Forever young – how older Australians can turn back the clock (with Rochelle Eime)

Sport Australia has just delivered $23 million to its Better Ageing program, aimed at encouraging older Australians to participate more in sport and physical activity. In terms of a broader health policy, this seems like a good fit. Australians are ageing rapidly as the 3.7 million residents now aged 65 or older (or 15% of the population) is expected to boom to 8.7 million people or 22% of all Australians by 2056. According to the Better Ageing program, this group does not currently receive consistent and timely information about how and why participation in physical activity is important. Research shows that physical activity in later life has significant cardiovascular and metabolic health benefits, and helps to control weight and combat chronic diseases, reducing the huge and increasing pressure on our health system, and therefore our economy too.

We  also know that participation in sport, particularly club and team-based sport, can contribute to a range of psychological and social health benefits for adults that extend above and beyond the improvements attributed to participation in physical activity. This is due to the social nature of participation in club and team-based sport. Recent research on the benefits of participation in sport for older adults highlights that social health benefits are most prominent, followed by physical and mental health. Sport for older adults can be a great vehicle to improved social connectedness and reduced social isolation. Comments from older sport participants in this study revealed that:

“It’s the social aspect that keeps me going.”

“We come together for the socialisation, don’t we?”

“I think the club sort of becomes your extended family.”

Yet, despite these benefits, few adults and even fewer older adults play organised, community club-based sport. Compared to the 40% of 10 to 14-year-olds who take part in sport in this country (Australia’s peak age group for sport participation) only 1.2% of Australians aged 50 to 54 play sport. This drops even further with age, with fewer than 0.5% of adults over 55 participating in any of Australia’s 12 most popular community sports that include Australian Rules Football, basketball, cricket, bowls, tennis, hockey, gymnastics, golf, sailing, netball, swimming and soccer.

Australia’s sport governance and policy-making body recently rebranded from the Australian Sport Commission to Sport Australia. Its new 12-year national sports plan, Sport 2030  highlights that Australian sport policy must for the first time ever, extend well beyond just the games of ‘sport.’Sport 2030’s ambitious goal is to get Australians not only moving more, but to make Australia the world’s most active sporting nation, known for its “integrity, vibrant participation base, thriving sports organisations and its elite competitive results.” If realised, this plan could deliver significant health outcomes for individuals, communities and the nation. The policy has shifted from focusing on participation in traditional community club-based sport – which is largely a competition model – to a broader definition of ‘sport’ that includes leisure-time physical activity outside clubs. So as well as traditional, structured sports, the plan brings new and evolving activities such as ‘ninja’-style obstacle courses and stand-up-paddle boarding under the umbrella of ‘sport’.

But how does such a significant long-term investment benefit older Australians and realise the mandate of the Better Ageing program? Will Sport 2030 identify and develop more recreation-based activities for older Australians? As the national policy has never focused on this group before, one easy option may be to promote more pursuits such as ‘walking’ sports as suitable activities for seniors rather than to modify the traditional form of the sport and creatively develop activities for this group. To date, sport governing bodies have strategically focused on children, young people, and elite athletes. Older adults for the vast majority of national and state sporting associations are simply not a priority, in part because they do not  have resources to focus on them.  Societal perceptions that sport isn’t for older adults also act as a barrier.

As Australia’s sport industry is handed the Better Ageing funding, it has an opportunity to make a sustainable difference to older Australians by carefully researching and identifying the distinct needs, desires and capabilities of this long-ignored sector. What about modifying cricket with shorter wickets and game times, and a softer ball for example? Clubs and communities must also have the right infrastructure to accommodate older adults, such as ramps or handrails. We’ve learned from the booming popularity of women’s football that investing in certain groups can certainly drive demand, but there was an obvious oversight when enthusiastic new players are required to use change rooms with open urinals. We also must consider the social needs of this group. Older Australians have different reasons for participating in sport, and a 65-year-old doesn’t want to play against a 20-year old even though they may both be lumped together in an ‘adult’ league.

The Better Ageing program is commendable, but without sustainable policy and governance changes at all levels, attempts to encourage older Australians into sport and other physical activities risk falling over once this investment stops.