How Do Competitive Aging Swimmers Compare to Other Aging Athletes? An Analysis of Senior Athlete Fitness Exam Data

Kristen McFarland, SPT, Shantel Norman, SPT, and Jenifer Paul, SPT

DPT2019 Senior Swimmers v Others McFarland Norman Paul.jpg

(Click on image to expand)

22 Comments on “How Do Competitive Aging Swimmers Compare to Other Aging Athletes? An Analysis of Senior Athlete Fitness Exam Data

  1. You mentioned how land based exercises might be beneficial to SA swimmers in order to help maintain proper bone health. Did you get the chance to communicate with any of these athletes about if they currently do any land based exercise, or if all they do is swim? Also, if they are already showing deficits in bone health and osteoporosis, would there be a land based exercise that would be better for them to start with as they begin the transition towards adding some land based exercises again? I just wonder if they’re already showing deficits would they then be at a higher risk for various complications associated with osteoporosis that could be encountered during land based exercises we’d want to consider/educate them about?

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    • Those are very good questions. We did ask each senior athlete (SA) about their training regiment at the 2017 National Senior Games health screens, and the majority of SAs did include at least walking in their weekly training but most of their focus was swimming. We did not report on the subjective data in this research study so it would be interesting to look at that data. We suggested that they could add more land based exercise in addition to their swimming training to maintain proper bone health. As far as the best land based exercises, it would be recommended first for the SAs to ask their physician for a bone scan to assess their bone density. If they do have osteopenia or osteoporosis, then they should be referred to their physical therapist for a safe, individualized exercise program. If you have any further questions let me know, and thank you for commenting.

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  2. I have a couple questions regarding your study. First off, you listed the various sports included in the senior games but did not specify exactly which sports the people in the “non-swimmers” group played? What sorts of sports did most of the “non-swimmers” partake in? My second question is regarding the swimming group. On average, how much time would you estimate these individuals spend swimming each day/week?

    Fascinating topic and very aesthetically pleasing poster!

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    • Hi Kelsey, thank you for your questions!

      There are 20 sports athletes can compete in at the National Senior Games, so we couldn’t list them all, but some popular sports include basketball, volleyball, pickleball, track and field, and cycling. You can take a look at all the sporting event on the National Senior Games website at http://nsga.com/ if you are interested.

      Now onto your question about the estimated amount of time each individual spent swimming a week. This was a limitation of our study because we did not ask them to elaborate on what they did for exercise specifically, we only asked them how many minutes a week they spent on cardiovascular training and how many minutes a week they spent on strength training. However, through talking to the athletes that were swimmers, I know that quite a bit of their cardiovascular training was swimming, we just didn’t have a way to record this in our system. The subjective nature is also a limitation of our study because there is no way for us to track how much training they are actually doing, it is just all based on what they report to us.

      I hope I adequately answered your questions. Thank you again for your kind words about our poster and for taking the time to analyze it!

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  3. I found this study very interesting! I wasn’t very surprised at the results indicating a higher rate of osteoporosis in swimmers, considering the lack of impact to stimulate osteoblastic activity. However, I was surprised by the results indicating that the swimmers showed higher rates of increased cholesterol, stroke, and cancer. This was especially surprising after looking at all of the other sports that are involved in the Senor Games. In my own opinion, it seems that swimming is much more physically demanding than a handful of the other sports. For this reason, I am curious as to if your data analysis revealed any other trends. For instance, if you were to compare athletes by each of their respective sports, and not just swimmers vs. non-swimmers, would the results change and indicate that swimmers have lower rates of the various conditions in comparison to some of the other athletes? Ultimately, I am just curious as to if some of the athletes that are involved in less strenuous sports (like horseshoes) have higher rates of the conditions but are just being masked by the athletes that are involved in more strenuous sports (like track).

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    • Hi Cole, I think my whole research team was quite surprised by these results as well. Picking and choosing what sports we wanted to compare swimmers to would lead to biased data, so we found it best to simply compare swimmers to all other athletes competing in the National Senior Games. I think that your idea for researching each respective sport is a great idea for future research. However, we need to remember that these swimmers are being compared to other serious athletes, not the rest of the population. If they were being compared to the rest of the population, I would suspect they would be much healthier in most aspects.

      Thank you Cole for your question and comments!

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  4. I know you mentioned all the health benefits of swimming, however your results showed that swimmers were significantly less healthy than non-smokers in a wide variety of categories. I find this so interesting. Having been very familiar with the National Senior Games and the SAFE screen, do you think a lot of these results have to do with your population sizes? There are far more non-swimmers than swimmers, possibly skewing your results. How do you think your results would have differed if say you compared swimmer to another highly cardiovascular sport (track and field)? I think this research project is so interesting and feel future research should focus on comparing 2-3 sports that require similar cardiovascular needs.

    Thanks so much for sharing your research!

    Katie Nour

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  5. Hi Katie! Thanks for those comments! I think you are right about the sample size. As you know, swimmers was a smaller cohort than other sports. I agree with you that it would be interesting to break down this study and compare swimming (a cardiovascular sport) to another cardiovascular event like the track and field. We had originally thought and actually planned to run the data comparing swimmers to runners but as you know it soon became evident to quantify runners, because many of them competed in multiple events, track and field, road race, long distance, short distance was too great a challenge at this time using the health history to track events as to what would be the best comparison to swimming. I think this would be an interesting avenue to take for future studies.
    As for the health of the swimmers, we found that surprising as well. We are attributing swimmers rating lower in the health categories due to the fact that swimming is a low impact sport so perhaps seniors are able to participate in this event longer so with age we see some health issues arise. Another possibility is due to the low impact of swimming, the sport attracts less healthy individuals as a way to exercise and still be active.
    Thanks for the comments from a fellow Senior Gamer!

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  6. Hi ladies! Nice poster. I was just curious what the “swimming” event all entails? Does each athlete have certain events (back stroke, freestyle, breaststroke, etc.) they compete in? If so, do you think comparing these athletes as individuals would yield differences between “swimmer” athletes? Also, since you were able to see all the other events at the games, which event do you feel would be most beneficial for maintaining bone health in this population?

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    • Hi Tory! Thanks for your questions! Each swimmer does have a different event for competition. Some examples of races would be freestyle, breaststroke etc. There are also different lengths of races like 200m, 400m etc. Some swimmers also compete in multiple races. Swimmers were lumped together as a cohort due to the fact that some compete in multiple competitions. Also, the sample size is too small at this time to split up swimmers into individual events for our purpose of research. When we tested swimmers in the SAFE screen, we found that some swimmers who competed in multiple events either tested higher because they were warmed-up or lower due to fatigue from just finishing their event, when compared to the swimming cohort in general. Swimmers self-reported these findings during the screen and due to the nature of the screen were not tracked.

      Swimming is among the initial sports that has been broken down and compared to other sports using the SAFE screen. Swimmers on average seem to have more falls, have a slower gait speed and have decreased bone density when compared to other sports perhaps due the fact that swimming is not a land based activity. Archery showed a safe/normal gait speed and since it is a land based sport may help with bone density. In general, swimmers’ bone density may improve by incorporating any land based sport or activity into their training because it decreases their time in the pool and increases their time spent on land.

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  7. I was wondering if you looked at any data which compared your swimming athletes to that of the general senior population? I understand this research was aimed at comparing all older senior athletes but based on the results it appears like I would not want to recommend my grandma to use swimming as her primary exercise activity. I was curious if you could add data from the general senior population to demonstrate swimming to be a positive activity on those seniors who are currently less active, to justify swimming as a better activity than being generally inactive? Overall I really enjoyed your poster, I would just be curious to see a more expanded research question.

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    • There are several research articles concluding that swimming can be beneficial for a sedentary senior population, as well. Our research is focused on the senior athlete population in order to create a reference database for the active older adult; since there is very little research available on that population. For a sedentary older adult, an exercise program incorporating several different types of exercise guided by a medical professional would be the best way to remain active and healthy. Thank you for your comments and questions, Zach!

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  8. Great poster! Good way to display so much data because I am sure that was a lot to situate. My group is doing Senior Games too and we are taking on a similar approach! My question is, do you feel the large differences in sample size between swimmers and non-swimmers skewed the data analysis in any way? I also think its interesting how non-swimmers have less incidence of stroke and heart disease as mentioned in previous replies. I have seen in our current research on grip strength that a higher grip strength correlates with decreased rates of stroke and heart disease, have you seen this and do you think that could be an interesting study to find sports which sports have higher grip strength and see if they have less instance of such events?

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    • We definitely thought the difference in sample size between swimmers and non-swimmers had an impact on the data. If the sample sizes were closer in size then we could assume that the data comparison would be more accurate. It is interesting that you are seeing those results between grip strength and prevalence of stroke and/or heart disease. We did not specifically look at the correlation between the two, but our data does support that hypothesis. It would be very interesting research to continue; there could be a lot of interesting literature on those subjects! Thank you for the comments and questions, Allison. Good luck on your own research and have fun continuing the National Senior Games research!

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  9. Very interesting topic and great poster!! I was just curious if there were any comparisons made and/or significant differences in numbers between swimming and a specific non-swimming sport? For example, were there any comparisons between swimmers and athletes in a sport that incorporated more weight-bearing activity that could possibly account for health differences such as osteoporosis? Also, there were a lot more men than women in your study. Was this due to more male athletes participating in the games in general?

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  10. Hi Faye, thank you for your questions! We dabbled with the idea of comparing swimmers to other specific sports, but we decided the best way to display unbiased data was to compare to all other athletes instead of picking and choosing what sports we compared swimmers to. This would be an interesting option for further research however. But the data that is available supports that weight bearing activities are better at reducing the risk of osteoporosis. Even though there were more men in this study, it was very interesting to find that there is a significant difference in the rate of osteoporosis in men swimmers vs. non-swimmers and not in women. This shows that no matter what women do, they are more prone to osteoporosis. This is pretty common knowledge. The interesting part though is that men are much more affected by the reduced weight bearing activity level as there is a significant increase in osteoporosis in the men that swim. I don’t feel that more males competing affected our data because the increased amount of men in swimming events is proportionate to being more men competing in general and vice versa with women. I hope your semester finishes strong and you enjoy your upcoming break!

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  11. Great poster and some very interesting information that you found! I too found it surprising that swimming athletes showed higher risks of stroke and other cardiovascular disease. I know that you described it being small sample size, but in the data that you were able to gather, were there any differences between the different types of swimming strokes that you were able to pick up on? That is, is there one style that is more physically demanding than the others and may show more promising results?

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    • Hi Trevor, thank you for your comments and questions! We did not include questions about specific swimming strokes in the subjective health history that we collected. We collected data for a larger database of active older adults so we had to work with the information that has been collected in previous years. The other senior games research group in the class of 2019 compared grip strength to how swimmers placed in the races. Their data may give an indication if one swimming styles were stronger on average than another. Good question!

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  12. Great work on the project! In your poster you mentioned lower bone density of the swimming senior athletes compared to non-swimming senior athletes. Were your results on bone density ever compared to non-senior athletes? In other words, is swimming beneficial for bone density as compared to non- exercising for an older adult?

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    • Hi Carl, thank you for your question and kind words! Our research study only focused on senior athletes, so due to the nature of our study and our sample population, we were unable to research how swimming effects older adults that are not senior athletes. However, I think this would be a great direction for future research. Have a great end to your semester and enjoy Christmas break!

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  13. Hey guys! This looks super great. I am wondering if you think assessing the bone density at baseline and then again at the end of your study would strengthen your conclusions or help to bring more light to your questions regarding if other forms of exercise are needed? Or can it be assumed that the bone density will stay the same or trend in a negative fashion from what we know about weight bearing exercise and bone health?

    Thanks,
    Carly Uecker

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  14. Hi Carly! Thanks for your comments and questions. I think doing a bone density scan at an athlete’s baseline and after they have trained and competed in their sport for a prolonged duration would be a great way to show the impact that particular sport is having on the athlete’s body. It would be a great tool to use to show what changes are made with the implementation of particular land based exercises/sports to help strengthen our recommendations as well. Good luck with the end of the semester!

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