How to Shift From Being an Athlete to an Active Adult

Performance exercise may not offer long-term benefit
man exercising in morning before work

If you’re a former high school or college athlete no longer feeling the intensity of competition, you have to learn new ways to exercise and stay fit. Experts say the biggest hurdle is often a mental one. You have to reassess your workouts with new goals in mind – from sports performance to your overall fitness. 

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What makes people strong athletes doesn’t always serve their long-term wellbeing, says Primary Care Sports Medicine Physician Anne Rex, DO. For example, “Maximal lifting may make you stronger for football, but continuing extreme lifting into later life will likely cause orthopaedic problems,” she says. 

She advises athletes to do the following:

1. For long-term fitness, be moderate

Real life doesn’t mimic the off-season, pre-season, in-season and post-season rhythm of athletics, which provide necessary rest for your body and prevent overtraining. “Former athletes can wind up pushing their bodies to extremes all year,” says Dr. Rex. This can cause long-term problems, including chronic injuries that may prohibit exercise altogether.

She says a long-term exercise plan should be reasonable. Exercise is as much a physiological stress on your body as heat, humidity and cold. It’s difficult to maintain high levels of physical performance indefinitely without rest.

2. Find new motivations

When improving athletic performance is no longer your primary motivation for exercise, it’s crucial to find another motivator – something that won’t change. Everyone is different, so look for something outside sports performance that will ensure consistent exercise throughout life. 

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New motivators can be:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Preventing a chronic illness that runs in your family, such as heart disease.
  • Effectively managing stress.
  • Improving sleep patterns.
  • Enjoying higher energy levels.

3. Come up with a new workout plan

Exercising for health and wellness can easily fit into a working lifestyle. A moderate fitness regimen takes just one hour, three to five times a week.

However, you can spread the different components of exercise throughout your week. If you can’t exercise for an hour, do just 30 minutes of cardio or strength training and make up the rest later in the week. “Exercise doesn’t have to be done perfectly to be effective,” says Dr. Rex.  

With a reasonable approach to exercise, you can meet national guidelines for health and fitness, and maintain a strong physical fitness level throughout your life. 

Your workouts should include these aspects of fitness:

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  • Cardiovascular exercise: Do at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio most days of the week (divide into 10-minute segments if you prefer). Walking is fine! Alternatively, do 20 minutes of vigorous cardio exercise three times a week.
  • Resistance/strength training: Use free weights, machines, calisthenics, exercise balls, bands or Pilates twice a week to exercise all major muscle groups and keep up lean muscle mass. You can get by with two sets of 12 reps. If time is tight, try a short strength workout with multi-joint resistance exercises: pushups, squats, lunges, leg presses, chest presses and rowing. Don’t worry about isolating individual muscle groups. In a pinch, try simple pushups to work the biceps, triceps, chest, upper back and abdominal muscles.
  • Balance and agility training: Do crunches on a ball or biceps curls while standing on one foot to improve strength and balance. Can be combined with strength/flexibility exercises such as Pilates or yoga.
  • Flexibility/Stretching: You can do this at a completely different time of day – at the office, after your morning shower, etc. Stretch at your desk or at home while watching TV, for example.

4. Keep sports in your life

Athletes become athletes because of the joy they find in sports and activity. 

If you were an athlete in high school, try participating in intramural and recreational athletics in college to maintain an active lifestyle and prevent the boredom that active athletes often feel in the gym. 

If you were an athlete in college, consider joining a tennis club or a racquetball, softball or baseball league as an adult to help compensate for any sense of loss. Throughout the seasons, incorporate outdoor sports such as skiing, hiking, cycling and running into your life.

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