Curling shows signs of helping older Canadians age better

“The Roaring Game”

Russ Howard remembers why curling was given that name. One of the most successful curlers in Canadian history, Howard used to go to curling clubs with his parents instead of staying with a babysitter.

“I’d go up there and sit there by myself I’d just watch,” Howard reminisces. “You could hear the crash of the stones and the corn brooms and the sweeping, the noise, the yelling, it appealed to me.”

Howard not only saw incredible success as a curler, but his career also spanned decades, from his debut in 1979, to finally retiring in 2009. The 63-year-old was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, is a Member of the Order of Canada, and is a curling analyst at TSN.

“As a teenager, curling gave me a lot of confidence,” says Howard. “That confidence continued to build over the years.”

A study in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity echoes Howard’s feelings to a tee. The study, headed by Dr. Rachael Stone, a professor at Queen’s University who teaches courses around healthy aging. She found that any amount of participation in curling for adults over the age of 50 resulted in positive physical, psychological and social results. Titled “Curling for Confidence”, the paper looked at how curlers of all experience react to engaging in the sport.

Stone noticed two key things when she looked at research being done around older Canadians and sports. The first was the lack of work in the area, with most sports-related research focusing on youths or young adults. The was that much of the research she was finding focused solely on the physical benefits of sports, and decided to look at how sports can affect the psychological and social aspects of aging.

Stone took curlers over the age of 60 from local clubs around the Toronto area, and then found participants who had limited to no experience curling to compare how the three groups reacted to the sport. Curling is a much lower impact sport than others such as football, hockey or even baseball. Previous studies have found that older adults who participate in sports are happier, more fit and are less likely to experience depression. Stone says that a significant part of successful aging isn’t just physical or psychological, but also those social interactions can have a massive impact on individuals.

The sport even uses this as marketing to attract new players. Curling Canada boasts “Meet people and plays with friends ” and “People of any age and ability can play ” as reasons why people should join a curling club.

Even in a time where most sports continue to get younger, there are curlers that still compete at the highest level at ages wherein any other sport they would’ve been long retired. Canadian Olympic gold-medallist Jennifer Jones is 44. Glenn Howard, Russ’ brother, still competes at 56.

A 2015 analysis of the demographics of curling found that just over 20% of all curlers in Canada are over the age of 50. On top of that, nearly 70% of curlers surveyed in the analysis stated that “regular exercise is an important part of [their] life”. Before starting their research, Stone noticed a distinct difference between the groups of curlers
and non-curlers.

“I could tell that the curlers had a swagger that the non-curlers didn’t have. They were holding themselves differently,” says Stone. “On the non-curler side, they asked a lot of questions about safety and accessibility. They were more apprehensive.”

By the end of the study, the results showed that all groups from experienced curling vets to newcomers were self-reporting higher levels of confidence and better feelings towards their own aging.

“The results were pretty striking. Even someone who’s had three, six months of experience, they started to accrue the benefits of a curler who’s been curling for 20 years,” says Stone. “They suggests that if you pick up the sport, there are results that happen pretty much right away.”

Issues affecting older Canadians are becoming more important than ever. Let’s look at some of the numbers. In 2014, the government of Canada released a report detailing how they will be 3 forced to adapt public policy to fit the needs of an aging population. According to the report, in 2012, one in seven Canadians was a senior (65+). By 2030, that number will jump to every one in four Canadians being over 65 years of age. Another government study found that despite 4 adults over 35 making up 69% of the population, only 20% participated in sports. At 55 and older, that rate drops to 17%. Compare that to 1992, where the rate of Canadians 55 and older who participated in sports was 25%.

The current national average is a 26% sport participation rate across all age groups.

Dr. Joseph Baker is a professor of kinesiology at York University, and one of the writers of
“Curling for Confidence”. He’s also the head of the Lifespan Health and Performance Laboratory at York. He remembers how curling became the focus of this study. One of the other authors, William H. Gage’s mother was a member of a local curling club. Gage reported back to Baker about the differences he noticed between seniors at the club and seniors who didn’t curl.

“It started as a ‘Hey, I wonder if there’s something here’, and it eventually became the focus of the study.”

Baker has been studying how sports can affect the aging process for a while now. In 2009, he published a study that found that while the effects of sports are most important for youths and seniors, the way that they are approached must be completely different. He continues this thought process in “Curling for Confidence”. With curling being low-impact and having high social interactions internalized into the sport itself (“It’s a tradition to get a drink with your opponent after a game,” notes Howard), Baker and Stone found that curling appeals to older people. One of the more significant findings according to Baker is the effect that curling had on the study subjects perception of aging. All of the participants, regardless of age and level of experience with the sport reported feeling better about the aging process and getting older.

“I was surprised to see that positive an effect across all of the different outcomes. we thought those effects would be less in the curling group compared to the non-curling group, but they were across the board positive,” explains Baker. “Those kinds of results are pretty rare to see.”

According to Stone, one of the difficulties of this research comes from the fact that these results are self-reported by the participants.

“Physical benefits are much more quantifiable and substantiated because you can measure it, but something like balance confidence is self-reported, so it garners a little less in terms of legitimacy when you can’t say that this is a cold-stone fact,” explains Stone.

When Howard looks back on his career, which includes 14 Brier tournament appearances, and an Olympic gold medal in 2006 in Turin at the age of 50. Howard is the oldest Canadian to ever win a gold medal.

“The sport gives you everything. It gives you confidence, team building skills, those are the rewards of playing,” explains Howard. “You don’t have to be 4% body fat to be a curler. It’s a thinking sport.”

Baker sees Howard as an example of how the public should look at older athletes, and how the expectations of being an older athlete can affect performance.

“What’s interesting about Russ Howard, is that when [he won Gold] you didn’t see a massive public response that were like ‘Wow there’s a guy 50 years old winning’,” says Baker. “The public was like ‘That’s just Russ Howard winning competitions’. At some point, we stopped  thinking of him as an older athlete and just thought of him as ‘an athlete.”

Baker and Stone both say that while “Curling for Confidence” was a eye-opener in terms of the effects that sports like curling can have on older adults. Stone says that this sort of information about the deeper effect of sports on the psychological and social side of aging should be more readily available for older adults. For Baker, he sees this research as a way to help change the way the public looks at older athletes.”

“Our stereotypes about aging are mostly negative,” says Baker. “We’re starting to see these amazing accomplishments by older athletes that we never thought people in their 70’s and 80’s would be able to do. We’re starting to break down these myths about age and performance.”