People are living longer.
By 2030 almost one out of five Americans, about 72 million people, will be 65 years or older.
In addition to wanting a better quality of life, maintaining lifetime fitness through physical activity and sports makes daily life much more manageable.
Research on older athletes clearly links physical activity with lower levels of depression, positive dispositions and enhanced levels of contentment, plus an increased belief that they can influence their own thoughts and behavior.
However, actual competition has been limited. Society seems to have restricted competing in sports to young, healthy and physically fit athletes, encouraging athletes past their prime to retire gracefully and discontinue any sport considered too strenuous.
That mindset has changed over the past three decades with the emergence of organized nationwide senior games competitions — the 31st annual Northwest Michigan Senior Games will take place in Traverse City on Sept. 15-16.
Sponsored by Priority Health and run by the Traverse City Senior Center, the games encourage people 50 years and older to achieve greater meaning and quality in their lives by staying healthy, active and fit.
This year, the Senior Games include a triathlon, 17.5-mile bike race, 5K run, swimming, one-mile walk, pickleball, golf, bowling, horseshoes, shuffleboard, field events, miniature golf and Wii bowling.
"People from all over are welcome to participate," said Lori Wells, director of the Traverse City Senior Center. "You don't have to live in the Traverse City area."
Before the Senior Center took over the facilitation of the Senior Games in 2007, they were run by the Area Agency on Aging of Northwest Michigan.
"The senior participants themselves coordinate the activities … it is really driven by a core of senior volunteers, who really enjoy the games," said Dee Wilkinson, housing coordinator with the Area Agency on Aging. "It is independent of the Michigan Senior Olympics. It is not a stepping stone to any other competition — it is just our local games."
In 2006, Priority Health became the corporate sponsor of the Northwest Senior Games, which are now promoted throughout the state. The YMCA, Cherry Capital Cycling Club and the Traverse City Track Club are organization sponsors.
"As a sponsor, we provide T-shirts and support at the games," Pam Mulliner of Priority Health stated. "We support the games, because we promote healthy active lifestyles and positive perceptions of healthy aging. It goes hand and hand with our mission as well, wanting to be a part of helping everyone live and grow in good health."
Competing in the Northwest Senior Games is like testing the waters — a chance to see how you compare to other athletes. Since some of the athletes from here have competed in the Michigan Senior Olympics, a new participant can also see how they measure up with state senior competitors.
The level of physicality ranges from swimming a half-mile or biking 17.5 miles to something less active by speed-walking a mile or competing in horseshoes and shuffleboard.
"You can compete at the level you are comfortable with — you can choose," Wilkinson said. "If you have never raced or biked or competed, it's a safe environment, it's a supportive environment — everybody is cheering everybody on from the first competitor to the last … it's fun — the camaraderie, the friendships, the reunion of those who have competed before and come together in September are all worth the effort of competing again."
As seniors retire and are inclined to slow down, the events at the Senior Games give them an opportunity to stay active, even the incentive to learn a new sport. It's important for people of all ages to know that seniors are vital, active and still competing, setting goals for the younger generations.
The registration fee for competing in the Senior Games is $6 with additional fees for events such as golf at Elmbrook Golf Course, bowling at Timberlanes and miniature golf at Wilderness Crossings.
Registration is requested by Sept. 7 for biking, Wii and regular bowling, swimming, shuffleboard, 5K run, pickleball and horseshoes. Advance registration is encouraged for all other events, but on-site registration is accepted.
Senior Night at the Traverse City Beach Bums baseball game is scheduled for Friday, Aug. 13. Anyone 50 and older can also register for the Northwest Michigan Senior Games that night. If a participant registers at the Beach Bums game, the registration is free.
Call the Senior Center for more information at 922-4911 or -mail firstname.lastname@example.org .
Kathleen Bellaw Gest is a local freelance writer. For more about the Traverse City Senior Center, go to www.tcseniorcenter.com.