The National Veterans Golden Age Games is a national multi-event sports competition designed to improve the health and quality of life of older veterans in the United States. The games are held annually, and veterans can participate regardless of their ability level.
The 2021 Games were scheduled to be held in Madison, Wisconsin from June 21 – June 26, 2021, but due to Covid, they modified the event to an at-home event from May 10-28.
The Games are one of the world’s most adaptive and progressive rehabilitative sports programs for seniors, and also serve as a qualifying event for competition in the National Senior Games in some event categories.
The Games are designed to promote physical activity and friendly competition, in order to engage not only veterans’ bodies, but their minds as well. The recreation opportunities provided by these games help fill a need in the lives of older VA patients; VA research has found that physical activity is especially important to the health and overall quality of life for older veterans.
The Games began in 1985 in Albany, Georgia, and had 115 competitors. In 2019, there were almost 800 competitors across eight age categories. The 2020 Games had 1,200 applications from 49 states.
Golden Age Games Participation
The Games are designed for veterans who are over the age of 55 and are VA patients. The goal is to help veterans make physical activity part of their daily lives, and to support the rehabilitation therapy and recreation programs offered by the VA. Participants also get the chance to build relationships with other athletes.
The Games serve as a way to showcase the following for older Americans across the United States:
- The preventive and therapeutic value of sports and physical activity
- The importance of fitness to physical and mental health
- The role of recreation in overall wellness
Veterans of all ability levels are invited to participate, in an effort by the VA to encourage older veterans to embrace a healthier lifestyle, as well as the “Fitness for Life” motto that the Games represent. In order to participate, athletes are required to have their Primary Care Physician complete and sign a Medical Clearance Form. The VA Medical Center that is hosting the Games must receive participants’ forms prior to the start of the event.
What activities are represented?
There are many activities that participants can compete in in the Games, and there are opportunities for those with differing abilities to participate. Activities include:
- Air rifle and air pistol
- Blind disc golf
Participants compete by gender for some events, and ambulatory, wheelchair athletes, and visually impaired athletes compete by division in some events as well.
There are eight different age classifications:
Why are the games held?
The VA hosts the National Veterans Golden Age Games as a rehabilitation event, focused on the health and well-being of veterans who are 55 and older. The Games promote the importance of exercise for older veterans, and encourage athletes to continue participating in physical activity and athletic events in their home communities.
The National Institute on Aging provides resources for exercise and physical activity for older Americans, and includes information on different types of exercise that can be used as training for the Games:
- Endurance: walking, gardening, hiking, running, biking, swimming, and tennis
- Strength: weight training and push-ups
- Balance: tai chi and yoga
- Flexibility: yoga and stretching exercises
The National Institute on Aging also provides the Go4Life website, which has additional information on exercise that can be used to help participants train for the Games, and continue incorporating physical activity into their daily lives.
Importance of Physical Activity for Older Veterans
The National Veterans Golden Age Games work to encourage older veterans to live a healthy lifestyle, and to promote physical activity among this group. There are many benefits to consistent physical activity for older adults, including:
- Reduced risk of falling
- Reduced risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, colon cancer, and coronary heart disease
- Improved stamina and muscle strength, especially for those with chronic conditions
- Improved mood and can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety
- The maintenance of healthy muscles, bones, and joints, as well as controlling joint pain and swelling due to arthritis
Physical activity has also been found to help veterans who have PTSD. Exercise offers veterans the opportunity to participate in activities they enjoy, and can promote not only physical but mental well-being. Well-being is made up of several components:
- Physical activity
- Balance in different aspects of life
- Healthy eating
- Getting enough sleep
- Building relationships with others
- Lowering stress level
Older veterans who have PTSD may be more likely to experience:
- Early onset of chronic health conditions
- Lack of adequate self-care
- Poor physical condition and frailty, due to a lack of physical activity
The average age for a veteran is 58 years old, further illustrating the importance of promoting physical activity among this population. As veterans age, their likelihood of getting enough physical activity tends to decrease. Among veterans age 75 and older, less than ten percent meet the recommended exercise guidelines: 30 minutes per day, five days a week.
Additional resources for physical activity
In addition to the National Veterans Golden Age Games, older veterans can also participate in Gerofit, an exercise program that works to promote health and wellness. The program has been shown to improve:
- Overall health
- Mental and physical functioning
- Overall well-being
Gerofit provides group fitness classes like walking, dancing, and tai chi to help veterans stay healthy and active. All veterans in the program are provided a personalized exercise program, as well as guidance from trained staff like nurses, physical therapists, or physiologists. This program is offered at fifteen different VA Healthcare Systems nationwide.
The VA is working to ensure that all older veterans are able to access programs to help promote their health and well-being throughout their lifetimes.
Heather Maxey works at a non-profit that addresses military ineligibility. She is an Army spouse, and met her husband while working as a Health Educator at Fort Bragg.
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