In high school I did high kicks in white boots on the football field, in college I somehow landed a spot in a coed jazz dance company with the semiembarrassing name of BodyHype, and in my 20s I took the occasional dance class at a big studio in Manhattan. Then two things happened: I realized the girls shaking their stuff next to me were now half my age and twice as talented, and the sport of triathlon won my heart and every last shred of my free time.
Years later, though, I found myself with a mild case of triathlon burnout and a disturbingly frequent habit of attempting pirouettes in front of my bedroom mirror. And that is how I found myself taking my first real ballet class in more than 15 years, wearing "dance" clothes I'd scrounged from my running wardrobe, feeling more than slightly nervous. We know you can't go home again; does that mean you can't go to the dance studio, or the basketball court, or the soccer field again, if you haven't set foot there in years?
Not at all, says Charles Brown, a psychologist who directs FPS Performance, which is based in Charlotte, N.C., and offers services that include mental skills training for athletes and performers. Taking up an activity or sport after a break of many years can be a great idea—especially since sticking to an exercise routine hinges on actually enjoying what you are doing. "The key to being successful is having reasonable expectations," he says. "People jump in with these memories of what it was like in the glory days, but their bodies aren't the glory-day bodies."
So we just have to rejigger our approach to line up with the realities of age and responsibility. People who may still want to compete hard often seek out a masters' program for the over-40 crowd or a recreational league with like-minded athletes. Robert Herzog founded ZogSports, which organizes sports leagues for more than 35,000 people in the New York City metro area, and says it's possible—if you've still got what it takes—to seed yourself into a very competitive division made up of former college athletes.
But the biggest reward for old(er) hands may be the simple enjoyment and pleasure of the process, not necessarily the outcome. "We have adults who haven't danced since they were 5," says Yvette Campbell, director of the Ailey Extension, a division of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater that offers dance and fitness classes to the general public. "They come back and start with something that they know, then expand into other kinds of dance. It's not about being the perfect dancer." My friend Corrie Pikul ran cross-country in high school and at Syracuse University and says that after college the focus and competitive impulse stayed with her as she trained to qualify for the Boston Marathon. "If I ran a slow time, I felt like it was a blight on my record," she said when I quizzed her recently. Running was her identity. That all changed with grad school, career, and an end to free time; she went five years without really racing or doing long runs. "I ran for mental sanity, but I absolutely didn't care how fast I went," she said. Last summer, she and her boyfriend trained together for a half marathon, but "it was more about fitness," she said. "I wanted to finish comfortably, but it wasn't worth the risk to go too fast and get injured."
She had the right approach, according to Dean Taylor, the head team physician for the Duke University basketball team. "When you're 25, your muscles and tendons and ligaments are a lot more flexible. If you're returning to vigorous activity after a long layoff, they won't be in the condition needed to tolerate that kind of vigorous activity." In other words, if you're going back to training for a running race, start out with the beginners' program. Try just one or two pickup games of soccer a week at first, rather than trying to mimic the two-a-day schedule you followed in high school.
And, Taylor advises, try to injuryproof yourself by warming up with some light activity beforehand, to get the blood flowing. Figure out where your weak points are—sites of old injuries, for example—and strengthen them with resistance training using weights or machines before you jump back into training or playing hard; ask a trainer at the gym if you aren't sure which exercises to do. In my case, that means start with a beginning ballet class and take some extra time to stretch my tight calf muscles.
In spite of my older, less flexible self, I feel more comfortable in dance class this time around than I ever did before. Brown says the years of perspective can make you a smarter and wiser athlete, which can mean a surprising rebound in skills. I already feel that after a handful of classes. As a teenager and in my 20s, I was often so self-conscious about how I looked in Lycra that I failed to focus on the actual dancing. Now I don't care what other people think, and I find I'm staying in the moment, enjoying the pure pleasure of dance. If I'd known then what I know now, I'd have been so much better then.