Last week, Tom Brady, a recent NFL retiree, watched from the Old Trafford stands in England as Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat trick in an English Premier League game against Tottenham Hotspur. As the game finished and the 37-year-old Ronaldo completed his stunning master class on how elite athletes defy age, he met with 44-year-old Brady and asked him a simple question: “You’re finished, right?”
But Brady’s competitive embers had been rekindled. The next day, he announced his comeback to football for a 23rd season. Citing “unfinished business,” Brady tweeted, “my place is still on the field and not in the stands.”
As Louisa Thomas wrote in The New Yorker, apart from “a few faint wrinkles around his sturdy brows,” Brady has been unscathed by the process of aging. He can still play football. Last season, the 44-year-old was the oldest active player in the sport by four years. Despite that, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback led the league in regular season passing yards, completions and touchdown passes. And he was the starting quarterback in four of the past six Super Bowls, bagging three Lombardi Trophies in that span.
Brady might have outlasted many of his football peers — who often have short, injury-ravaged careers — but he has become less of an anomaly among professional athletics as a whole. Increasingly, advances in nutrition, training and sports medicine are allowing older athletes like Ronaldo, tennis standout Roger Federer and basketball superstar LeBron James to challenge previous assumptions about aging in sports and to extend their prime years of performance. While the individual successes of these generational talents may not be easily reproducible, their approach and process toward self-preservation should prove transformative throughout sports.
Time is cruel to the human body. With age, reaction times diminish, lung function falls and the heart works overtime to counter hardening blood vessels. Most tragically for the athlete, the musculoskeletal system is one of the first to show evidence of aging as muscle mass declines, bone density decreases, ligaments and tendons lose elasticity and cartilage thins.
“From a biologic perspective, a lot of tissues lose their water content as we get older. That flexibility and pliability loss is a major risk for injury,” said Dr. Selene Parekh, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Duke University and founder of The Fantasy Doctors, which provides injury analysis across sports. “As we get older, there is an accumulation of injury that happens, whether it is microtrauma or macrotrauma.”
Yet a growing number of athletes across the sports spectrum are regularly surmounting this physiology of aging. At age 37, LeBron James is still having 50-point scoring outbursts for the Los Angeles Lakers, becoming the first NBA player in history to surpass that threshold before the age of 21 and after 35. He is averaging 29.5 points per game this season, easily eclipsing Karl Malone, who previously registered the highest average (23.2) at 37 more than two decades ago.
On the tennis court, Roger Federer and Serena Williams are two of the oldest Grand Slam champions in history, and both continue to push on at age 40, achieving unprecedented results in the current tennis era. At the game Brady attended, Ronaldo became the highest scorer in FIFA history after netting his 807th career goal. And at 41, Sue Bird is still adding to her decorated career in the WNBA.
The sustained prowess of these aging supernovas is no accident. It is the deliberate result of a disciplined and holistic process.
James has warded off age through his evolved understanding of basketball and by improving his three-point shooting. A higher basketball IQ and marksmanship from deep have helped him adapt his skills to the evolving game and maintain his significant influence on the court without depending on sheer athleticism. But even more important is the Lakers star’s obsessive focus on his body, which he reportedly spends $1.5 million on annually for the right foods, hot and cold tubs at home, a personal biomechanist and use of liquid nitrogen to counter inflammation.
“He is a sports scientist. He is somebody who thinks of his body like a doctor, mechanic and scientist and invests in it accordingly,” said Jeff Bercovici, a journalist and author of “Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age.”
Brady’s commitment to his body is also legendary. The quarterback’s patented TB12 Method and approach to nutrition and training is a daily way of life that he revels in. His diet strikes a balance between alkaline and acidic foods to reduce systemic inflammation.
Crucial to all this has been an appreciation for managing fatigue from exertion to minimize injury risk and maximize the effectiveness of training and performance.
“Athletes a generation ago were just not paying attention to fatigue. They were overtraining, the idea that more is more,” Bercovici noted. “The mentality on that has just gone 180 degrees in the other direction.”
Of course, not all athletes will follow such career trajectories. Not everyone is brimming with the baseline talents of James or Brady or has the discipline or resources to stick with such regimens. Yet as the boundaries of physical aging get pushed by specific stars, we all learn more about the wondrous potential and resilience of the human body. With time, this may radically alter how athletes at all levels are nurtured, and even how nonathletes fend off the crippling effects of age.
“As you see more and more break through these glass barriers, you will see a swell of individuals over time starting to do this,” according to Parekh. “It changes the way you approach sports right from the high school level or even before that. It’s a lifestyle that you adopt right from the beginning.”
Brady’s return to football, and likely continued dominance, will only strengthen the case for such a lifestyle.