Competitive sports have traditionally been the preserve of the young. History shows that as physical limitations and time constraints begin taking their toll, participation rates begin to decline. But now a new approach to the way those aged 65 and over participate in physical activity is offering Australian seniors the chance to re-connect with sports they may have previously enjoyed.

Operating under the blanket term of modified sports, which also includes sports for those living with disability, the initiative works by offering a range of sports – including football, netball and gymnastics – at a lower impact level.

Tailored for different ability levels, modified sports are increasingly being seen by both participants and other stakeholders as a great way to keep older community members fit, healthy and engaged.

Barriers to entry

Australian physical activity guidelines for older adults recommend accumulating at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each day. Typically, cardiac output, respiratory function, muscle mass, metabolic rate, nerve conduction rate, flexibility, and bone density decline with age. However, maintaining a physically active lifestyle, combined with dietary and supportive lifestyle practices, can help reduce the rate of decline.

Dr Claire Jenkins is an expert when it comes to the benefits of sports participation. “There are many benefits that participants can derive from playing sport. These can include physical health, but also social and mental health. For example, reducing loneliness and making new friends. That’s why its important people find something they enjoy and participate when they can,” she says.

History of modified sports

Modified sports started off with amending traditional sports rules for children, to focus on fun and skill development.

Claire says the first publicised modified sports idea for older adults was walking football, which was developed by the Chesterfield FC Community Trust in 2011 in the UK. Now, however, the popularity of such sports is spreading exponentially, with many countries including Australia now introducing similar programs across a range of sports including netball, hockey, rugby and basketball. 

Popularity will grow

Claire says in general most of the well-known modified sport opportunities for older adults tend to be walking sports. However, some organisations have looked at modifying sports in other ways, she says.

“A couple of years ago, London Sport in the UK provided sitting netball for care home residents. I think more modifications like that, be it seated sporting opportunities or informal kickabouts, can enable people to be active,” Claire says. She expects modified sport to continue to grow in popularity, as opportunities become more geographically available.

Claire says there is no “best” type of sport or physical activity for older adults. Senior Australians are similar to every other population group, in that their interests are often diverse and their physical capabilities are likely to vary greatly. For this reason, lots of different opportunities need to be available to ensure older Australians can continue to participate in sport.

She urges anyone aged 65 or over who is considering taking up a modified sport to contact their local sports club or sports development officers to confirm what opportunities are available and explore different options.

“If you don’t find something you like, then be creative and modify a sport yourself, to focus on the things you enjoy.”

If you want to get involved

Walking football: run in partnership with Active Ageing Australia and member federations is a sustainable version of football specifically modified for older Australians. Play Walking Football.
Walking netball: a modified version of netball designed for senior women and men - netball but at a walking pace. Play Walking Netball.
Walking basketball: a low-impact social and fun way to improve the levels of physical activity for inactive and slightly active Australians, including those recovering from injury. Play walking basketball.