What comes to mind when you think of your dad playing sport? While surfing, mountain biking, scuba diving and other adventurous pursuits aren't often thought of as “dad sports", it seems parents are now taking up more adventure sports post-kids than ever before.
Men in their 30s to 60s are currently the most active generation we've ever seen. From cycling to running to surfing, adventurous sports have boomed among middle-aged men in the past five years. Most surfers are now aged between 25 and 44, according to charity Surfers Against Sewage. 30 to 49 year-olds cycled almost twice as many miles as any other age group (94 miles on average), according to the National Travel Survey.
Long gone are the days of parents being written off as “too old" to start a new sport. It seems adventurous parents are growing in number – and it looks set to continue to rise. But why are dads taking up action sports later in life?
“Surfing is something we can do together as a family"
For many, it's because their kids have taken them up – and they are inspired to get involved too. Mal Darwen, 49, moved to Cornwall after 30 years living in London. His 12 year-old daughter took her first surf lesson earlier this year – and was hooked within half an hour. “She's wanted to go most days since," he says.
Mal describes his interest in sport as “going into negative values". However, since his daughter started surfing, he is booking surf lessons for himself. “Surfing is something we can do together as a family. As my daughter gets older, it's increasingly clear that she's going her own way. The more quality time we can spend together, the better."
Other fathers I spoke to noted the same. By taking up the same sport as their kids, it is a fresh, enjoyable way to bond as a family. “I'm more of a dad since I started snowboarding," says Nik Coultas, 40. “I'd probably still be working five days a week in London and just seeing the kids at the weekend if I hadn't discovered snowboarding."
IT consultant Nik took up snowboarding after his son Rowan Coultas bought him lessons for Father's Day seven years ago. As Rowan's skills on the slopes increased, the family realised he had a good shot at making Team GB – so they moved to Mayrhofen in Austria to help him pursue a life as a professional snowboarder. “I was really obsessed with work, but as soon as I discovered snowboarding, I totally changed," says Nik. “I'm not really bothered about work anymore, I just want to spend time with the kids."
It's not just dads that are spending more time with their children through action sports, it's grandparents too. Rodney Fawell, 72, took up scuba diving four years ago after his grandson Daniel Smith, now 18, developed a passion for the sport.
Daniel's dad Rob, 49, has now started scuba diving as well with Daniel's brother Ash, 21. They are all part of EM-SUB, the East Midlands branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club. “Some people said I was too old to start scuba diving," says Rob. “But I don't think you are ever too old to do anything, if you get your mindset right."
"Some people said I was too old to start scuba diving, but I don't think you are ever too old to do anything"
Rob now has his BSAC Ocean Diver qualification and the family have visited Tenerife and Spain on scuba diving holidays. “We're at the age when the kids aren't around as much. Everyone is busy with work or college, but scuba diving pulls us all together as a family. It gives us another opportunity to do something together."
Activity holidays are becoming increasingly popular with rad dads looking to spend time with their kids. Tour operator Thomson operates a company that focusses on active holidays for families called Robinson, which has resorts in Portugal, Spain, Italy and beyond. Rather than lounging by the pool, parents are more interested in cycling, surfing and scuba diving with their kids.
So why are this generation of fathers taking to the bike trails rather than bonding with their kids over watching TV? Many believe it is also partly due to an increased awareness of the importance of staying fit well into retirement age.
Cycling is one sport that's seen a particularly large growth in recent years. The biggest growth in bike sales in Britain has been among men aged 35 to 44 wanting to get fit.
Jim Michell, 40, runs PR agency Barefoot Media in Cornwall. He took up mountain biking three years ago when his two girls were eight and six years-old. “I had my old mountain bike in the barn that I got as a teenager, dusted it off and gave the trails near my house a go. After wheezing up the first hill, I almost passed out, then took it a bit more steadily and kept going back for more."
Now he goes biking at least once a week with close friends – mostly parents in their 40s. “I’ve never really understood the appeal of running or swimming lengths of the pool or going to the gym. It gets boring pretty quickly," says Jim. “I have always been attracted to sports that have an adrenalin buzz, where you don’t really notice that you are doing exercise."
“We’ve seen a huge upsurge in the 30 to 50 year old surfers, many of whom are fathers"
While taking up a new sport is definitely beneficial to your health, could overexerting yourself in an attempt to get fit have a negative impact on a person's health after 35? Dr. Michael F. Bergeron, executive director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute, thinks so. He says dads need to be careful of over-doing it when they first start. “If you do too much, too soon, too often, it's not a matter of if you get hurt, it's a question of when," he told NBC News.
Dr Bergeron recommends starting slow when taking up high intensity physical exercise in middle-age and gradually building fitness over time before heading out on four-hour surf or cycling sessions. Vigorous exercise without this gradual build up can raise blood pressure dramatically and ultimately cause a heart attack.
For many of these dads, kit has advanced so much in their lifetime that these sports are different – and a lot easier – than they were thirty years ago. Surfing, for example, has become more accessible for people who can't get in every day. “We’ve seen a huge upsurge in the 30 to 50 year old surfers, many of whom are fathers" says Ian Madden, owner of major surf shop Boardshop.
“Wider, higher volume hybrid surfboards rather than six foot toothpicks have completely revolutionised catching waves for the average guy. Boards and wetsuits available nowadays are so much more suited to this demographic than ever before that's made surfing easier."
In mountain biking, the transformation in kit has been amazing. “I got my first bike in the early '90s and there was no suspension," says Jim. “Full suspension bikes are amazing to ride." So it's not just a greater awareness of staying fit, but developments in kit that have brought about a resurgence in action sports.
Ultimately, these dads cherish their new-found sport because it's a great way to bring the whole family together doing something positive outside - rather than playing video games and bickering over whose turn it is to do the dishwasher. That can only be a good thing, right?