One of the things I love about pole is that no matter your age or fitness level – there is something for everyone! Pole is a sport/artform that you quickly love and become passionate about. Let’s be honest – once we started at pole, we ALL became addicted VERY quickly! But like most forms of exercise, at some point the question runs through our minds:
‘How long can I do this for?’
As we get older our bodies change. Biological females will go through menopause, and anyone over the age of 40 will recognise it takes a little bit longer to warm up and longer to recover after a harder training session or a performance night. A bit like a big night out – hello 2-day hangover! Thanks to the natural process of ageing, there is little we can do to stop us getting older (time machine anyone?) HOWEVER we can understand what it means for our bodies and make the most of it.
This leads to back to the question – ‘How long can I do this for?’
The answer is simple: as long as you want to!!
There are a variety of contributing factors that affect our bodies as an ageing athlete, and as we see more women and men over the age of 40 starting (or continuing) their journey in pole, we thought this was a great opportunity to look into some of the more pertinent changes that can occur. A few key things that will be covered in this blog include:
Bone related changes (osteoporosis)
Muscle and tendon changes
We will also be mentioning some tips and tricks along the way to help manage these changes as a poler and instructor! So, grab a cup of coffee (and those who are in recovery mode grab that foam roller) and let’s build the foundational understanding of what happens to our bodies as we age.
What is the definition of an older athlete?
In the sporting environment, an older athlete is defined as an individual over the age of 35 participating in sport (often referred to a Masters level athlete). Masters level athletes can be experienced competitors, individuals returning to a sport after a period of inactivity or be entirely new to a sport. Why 35 years old? Research has identified that 35 is the age when heart related issues become a higher cause of disease and disability, leading to lifestyle and activity changes.
In pole – an older athlete is no different. For some of you reading this, you may be an older poler long into your pole journey (and ongoing!). For others, your pole journey may be starting in your mid 50’s! Did you know the Pole Champion Series has a category called Masters open – for women and men over the age of 40. The implementation of this category is a positive step for the pole community allowing for older athletes to compete at a level that their bodies are able to tolerate. If you need any inspiration – check out Greta Pontarelli on the socials. At the age of 71 Greta continues to compete and win! How is that for pole and life goals!
Why is this relevant? An older athlete will have different challenges compared to those in their 20’s and 30’s due to how our bodies age. Some of these changes are more substantial for women due to menopause, but men will still be affected by bone and muscle related changes!
It is important to understand what may change, so let’s look into menopause first. For men reading and for women who have been through menopause, I encourage you to briefly read over this next section as it will help you understand what your fellow pole friends may be going through, especially if you are an instructor.
What is Menopause?
Menopause refers to the final menstrual period (aka pause of the menses) and signifies the end of a women’s ability to reproduce. There are three stages – perimenopause, menopause and post menopause.
Perimenopause: Women are considered perimenopausal when menopausal symptoms commence - which can start in your mid 40’s! Symptoms can last 4-8 years, however they increase in frequency and severity around the final year of menstruation.
Menopause: Women are considered in menopause when they are no longer having a period.
Post-menopause: Women are considered to be post menopause when they have had no periods for 12 consecutive months.
HOWEVER – if you are in your 20/30’s and not having a regular period (every 21-40 days), please get this investigated by your GP. Whilst menopause is a reason for periods ending, this is not usually normal in this age group and could be due to other factors outside of pregnancy.
The dreaded menopause symptoms………. if women are going to talk about anything regarding menopause, it is the symptoms! Symptoms can vary in severity and intensity dependent on the woman, but the most common that will affect participation in pole are:
Hot flushes, night sweats, aches and pains, fatigue
Mood changes – anxiety, irritability, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating
These symptoms occur due to changes in the hormones (oestrogen and progesterone) released by the ovaries responsible for the menstrual cycle. During menopause, these two key hormone levels fluctuate and become unpredictable, eventually becoming very low. Additionally, low levels of oestrogen are associated with lower levels of serotonin, an important chemical involved in controlling our mood, cognition, memory and sleep.
Ever wonder why menopause never seems to be predictable? Because our hormones are controlling it and every woman will be different! Approximately 20% of women will not experience any symptoms with menopause. Whilst 60% will experience mild symptoms and 20% will be severely affected. Some even experience symptoms lasting into their 60’s.
For women who experience severe menopausal symptoms, your GP may suggest a range of different treatment options. A common way to manage symptoms is hormone replacement therapy (HRT), a medication used to replicate oestrogen and progesterone hormones. Discussion of this medication in detail is out of the scope of this blog, but if you wanted further information on this therapy please chat to your doctor or gynaecologist.
For those who are currently on HRT or considering it, whilst HRT may improve your physical symptoms, it is important to understand that the menopausal changes are still occurring in your body. Your aches and pains may decrease, but you still may need longer to recover after classes due to fatigue. Changes in skin elasticity with menopause due to decreased collagen will affect your grip on the pole, therefore you may need to try some different grips, or different strategies (such as tailored strengthening) to get a strong grip hold. Touch base with our physios through our online appointments to get a program customised for you.
Tendons, Muscle and Bone
Bone - Osteoporosis
Did you know there are over 200 bones in our body, and it makes up 1/5 of our body weight???
As we load our bones over our lifespan, micro-damage occurs (a normal process) that signals to our bone cells to repair and become stronger. For most people, this is a very successful process. But if we repetitively overload (i.e. do a task more than our body can handle), or if we experience a sudden change in hormones, our bones do not repair like they are meant to (Beck et al 2017).
Specifically for women, oestrogen helps with the body’s ability to uptake calcium required by bones to aid with bone cell repair, however menopause causes oestrogen levels to reduce, which can lead to osteoporosis (often referred to as brittle bones). Post-menopause, a women’s oestrogen levels continue to remain low, with bone loss occurring at 2-4% per year (first 5-10 years) and 1-2% every year after.
Men can be affected as well, but not to the same extent. Check out the comparative difference below.
It all sounds very doom and gloom - but guess what! Pole is beneficial for bone health.
Pole can be classed as multimodal exercise – it has elements of diverse weight-bearing, impact loading exercise, progressive resistance (the harder the tricks – the stronger you need to be!), and functionally can challenge balance and mobility.
The current clinical evidence supports strength, movement and loading for optimising bone health. And pole ticks all those boxes (Daly et al 2019). It is important for good bone health to keep moving and all aspects of pole can help with that. Older polers may spend more time focusing on foundational strength for tricks on and off the pole (check out our Instagram for examples of exercises), or challenging movement skills with a floor flow class. Even time spent in heels (we all know how heavy they can feel) is great for optimising bone health!
Muscles and tendons
As we all get older (sorry men – this DOES include you) our muscle mass, strength and function gradually decline with the ageing process. This age-related change in our muscle mass is known as sarcopenia. This change can be linked to age, gender and level of physical activity (remember the old statement – use it or lose it?).
Did you know muscle mass decreases at a rate of up to 8% per decade after the age of 30. Yes 8 per cent! And this rate of decline is even higher after the age of 60 (Holloszy, 2000; Melton et al., 2000)! Loss of strength and function is one of the leading causes of disability in the older population due to increased risks of fails and vulnerability to injury.
As we age, the number and size of muscle fibres slowly decrease, and reduced levels of collagen (reasons why we may see more wrinkles in our face!) mean that the tendons that attach muscle to bone become stiffer.
Thanks to this process, our bodies will take longer to really feel like they warm up. In our 20’s we might have been able to get away with a quick warm up to get our heart rate going then straight into tricks. Over the age of 40, your body requires a little bit more to get moving, and it is important to be aware of this. A few strategies to help ensure you are warmed up prior to a class or training is to get there early and complete your own warm up, or park further away and do a longer walk to class. It is important as part of your warm up to ensure you are moving your joints through their full range (and getting some good muscle activation going). The same goes for a cool down – give yourself some extra time!
Most importantly - pole is GREAT for decreasing the onset of loss of muscle mass and strength, and keeping those tendons moving well! This is because pole requires the use of our skeletal muscles (strength), which helps maintain the mass, and loads the tendons to maintain pli