Team sports keeping older people young

For Jim DeVore, it was high school all over again.

There he was, fast footing around the court with his buddies, throwing everything into the game and giving it all for the team.

It ultimately ended in defeat. But for DeVore, a 62-year-old Santa Rosa family physician, that tournament left him with an exhilaration he had not felt in more than 40 years.

"I was disappointed in my performance but at that point, nobody cared," he recalled of that moment of defeat during the first-ever Wine Country Senior Games in June. "Everyone played hard. The satisfaction was playing hard, being totally exhausted when it was over, giving everything and when it's over, you're just smoked."

For most adults, the experience of playing a team sport ends in high school or college. And yet every player on the team Rabbit Stew — named for a mysterious term often repeated by DeVore's old high school coach — was over 60.

"One of my kids said, &‘What are you doing?' As if an old guy shouldn't play basketball. The thing is, I'm playing for the same reason high school kids play — for the excitement, camaraderie and the competition. None of that changes. That's the amazing thing."

There was a time when seniors were warned to take it easy and, at all costs, avoid injury. Keep it safe and light like walking or swimming. But as with so many cultural and social practices, Baby Boomers are forging a new norm for exercising. And that may include dialing back to the early life excitement of team sports.

"If you look at people who continue to participate in sports or physical activities for many, many years, they're more likely to do it if they're doing it with a group of people," said Dr. Kirk Pappas, a sports medicine specialist for Kaiser Santa Rosa Medical Center.

Pappas said it's important to consult your physician about any exercise plan and to proceed with common sense.

"If you're 85, basketball may not be your best choice," he said.

But, he stressed, the benefits of hard, intense, competitive exercise can outweigh the risks of minor injuries, particularly if the alternative is to not exercise

at all


Being sedentary is a far greater health liability.

"In team sports, we know 150 minutes of aerobic exercise is more powerful than any medicine we can give you," Pappas said.

Pappas' hero

is astronaut John Glenn, who returned to space in his


"It reduces the risk of complications from every disease known to mankind.

"As we age, it's expected to have aches and pains and some musculoskeletal owies. That's part of natural aging. But the alternative is not being alive."

DeVore is a runner and a thriathlete, so he already was in top shape when he returned to competitive basketball. But he found out that the moves and motor skills required for dribbling and shooting hoops are different. He wound up pulling his hamstring, almost immediately.

He and his teammates — brother John DeVore, 63; his old high school teammate Lad Allen, 61; Mel Peterson, 63, who played for Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State back in the '70s; and Kent Beasley, 61, of Santa Rosa, who also played in high school — trained for three months before the tournament.

"Basically everybody on our team had challenges physically," DeVore said. "When our team showed up for the tournament, I looked around. Everyone had knee braces and wrist braces. Basically you're learning to compete with knee arthritis, and everybody's got problems with their joints. It just goes with the territory."

If high impact is impossible for some people because of medical constraints or really advancing age, there are softer team sports that offer the same social contact, competition and camaraderie, like bocce ball.

"Part of the problem for people as they retire is their connection to the people they meet through the work force, whether its co-workers or other professional connections. You really can fall into an isolated state. So sports, especially team sports, offer that opportunity for connection," said Marrianne McBride, president and CEO of the Sonoma County Council on Aging, which sponsored the Senior Games. "Not only are sports going to improve your health, but if you get ahead of the game with exercise you're going to have better mental health," she added.

When Teri Simpson was young, competitive team sports weren't even available to girls. But at 51, she took up soccer and now at 64, she's probably the oldest player in the Sonoma County Women's Soccer League, playing beside women in their 30s and even her own daughter. Her over-50 team took gold in the recent senior games. She also plays in a traveling team.

Having teammates who are depending on her performance also motivates her to strive for optimum health.

"You want to do your best for your teammates," she said. "You know you have to eat right and sleep and for me, it meant adding strength training to my routine. Being a member of a team means holding up your end."

She recalls attending the World Masters Games one year and she saw women who were over 100 participating. She knows a woman in San Diego who plays soccer and point guard in basketball.

"I wouldn't say there are no fears of injuries," she admits. "But I'm in the best shape I can be. My bone density is good. I did have my ankle broken five years ago. Someone came from behind me and took me out. But it was a very quick repair because I was in very good shape."

She said playing with her daughter Larkin O'Leary, a teacher at Madrone Elementary School, is one of the best benefits of team sports over 60.

"I always play extremely passionately when I'm with her because I want her to be proud of me," she says. "It's just very very fun and it just leads to good things. I can't see a negative side to it."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey or 521-5204.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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