Sport and the mid-life crisis

I read an interesting article on Medium the other day, in which Paul Flannery, an American sports journalist, talks about why he and countless others have turned to running as a way of coping with a ‘mid-life crisis’. Flannery suggests displays of extreme athleticism in particular seem to have special appeal to those of us facing up to our own mortality and impending decline. Endurance sports, he argues, hold out the promise of a return to our youthful prime.

The term ‘mid-life crisis’ was coined in  1957, when it appeared in a paper presented to the British Psychoanalytical Society, but gained broader recognition after it was picked up by other psychiatrists in the 1960s. Back then, teenage culture was just taking off, and with the growing visibility and glamorisation of young people, youth was becoming an increasingly valuable commodity.

In this cultural environment, leaving one’s youth behind and entering middle-age was starting to look like a serious loss. A period of mourning seemed inevitable.

An end to the glamour of middle-age?

It hadn’t always been this way. Writing about his youth in the early 20th century, the author Stefan Zweig described feeling that his youthfulness was something of an embarrassment. He couldn’t wait to develop the paunch and whiskers of middle-age that, to him, symbolised potency and mature power.

But this is, of course, a male perspective. Youth was always a valued commodity for women in a society where they were valued more as ornaments than for their knowledge, skills or experience.

Today, the valorisation of youth is perhaps more intense than ever. Men as well as women are encouraged to fight the signs of aging across a range of fronts, deploying clothing, hairstyles and cosmetic surgery to resist being swept into the narrative of decline.

And the intensity of this need to modern people might be one of the reasons for the huge increases in participation in sports like running, cycling and triathlon over the last few decades.

But where’s the evidence?

At least that’s the story we’re told: MAMILs (middle-aged men in lycra) in their Sunday morning pelotons and aging marathon runners grimacing their way down the pavements are teased for being in the grip of personal crises, desperately clinging to their fading youth.

But I wondered whether the statistics support this stereotype. Are these sports really more popular with the middle-aged than others? And can we find evidence to show that men are, as is popularly believed, especially vulnerable to the mid-life crisis within sports participation statistics?

To investigate this, I turned to data from Sport England’s Active People Survey. This enormous survey of over 160,000 individuals provides robust data on sports participation across England.

First, let’s look at participation rates by age for running, cycling and swimming (an endurance sport that’s rarely associated with mid-life crisis). The green lines represent men, and the gold line women. The horizontal axis show age, the vertical axis is a measure of participation.

We can clearly see a bulge in participation amongst men (green lines) for both running and cycling starting around the age of 33. For running, this drops away by the age of 45, whereas for cyclists it continues to around 52. This is strong evidence that middle-aged men are disproportionately draw to these sports.

There is some evidence of a similar bulge amongst male swimmers, but it is much less pronounced and falls away more steadily over the years.

Amongst women (gold lines) we can detect a mid-life participation effect, but it is relatively slight. Women between the ages of 35 and 45 are more likely to run or cycle than younger women, but only just. The difference for female swimmers is even smaller.

So, the onset of middle-age does appear to correlate with men’s engagement in endurance sports (and running and cycling in particular) – and to a greater extent than it does for women. But perhaps this effect is true across sports more generally; perhaps running and cycling are unfairly singled out as manifestations of the male mid-life crisis.

Evidence from other sports

Let’s look just at men’s participation across some other sports. I’ve chosen football, golf and badminton – which are three of the most popular sports in England (after running, cycling and swimming). I’ve also chosen going to the gym, as this, like endurance sport, can be heavily focused on improving health, fitness and body shape.

First, football:

No sign of a mid-life bulge here. Men’s participation in football decays slowly from a peak at age 18.

Badminton shows a much slower decline than football, but again there’s no sign of a mid-life increase in participation compared to younger age groups.

Golf has a different profile. Here we can see that participation starts relatively low, and begins increasing fairly steadily from around the age of 40. However, peak participation levels are only reached around the age of 70, and remain above youthful levels until around 80. Hardly mid-life crisis territory!

None of these other popular men’s sports appear to exhibit the mid-life bulge we see in running and cycling, but what about going to the gym? This seems to me a more likely candidate as a response to the feelings of impending physical decline that can accompany middle-age.

Surprisingly, no, we can’t see a mid-life bulge here. It’s true that a long-term decline in gym usage is arrested between about 30 and 40, but there’s no sign of increased participation in this decade, and after this, the decline resumes.

Vindication of a stereotype?

The data we’ve looked at only addresses participation patterns. We don’t know if the increase in running and cycling by (particularly) men in their mid 30s to early 50s is precipitated by a ‘mid-life crisis’. It could be, for instance, that around this age we begin to lose touch with friends we can play team sports with, become more prone to injury in contact sports, or gain more responsibilities that make a quick run or ride the only way to fit some exercise into our days.

Perhaps women show less of a mid-life endurance sports bulge not because they don’t want to participate, but because they are more constrained by childcare than men are.

There are many possible explanations, but what the data does show is that the stereotype linking middle-aged men to running and cycling is based on reality. It reflects real social distributions that are unique to these sports.

Maybe it is a ‘mid-life crisis’ that’s behind this. But perhaps that’s not such a bad thing if it drives more people to take up an enriching, life affirming sport they otherwise would have missed out on.

At 41, I’m a middle-aged man myself, and running feels to me like a thoroughly positive and enriching experience. Through it, I’ve made friends, achieved goals and kept myself fit and healthy for ten years and counting. And yes, perhaps it is partly a response to middle-age angst and a fear of decline, but if it helps, it seems churlish to knock it!

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