Injuries Plague Athletic Baby Boomers

From master runners to members of over-50 basketball leagues, baby boomers are proving that age is no reason to drop a favorite sport.

Clarence Shields, M.D., a past president of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, routinely treats boomers and older athletes.

"People are living longer, they are trying to be active longer, and the level of intensity they want to compete at is very high," he says. But as we age, our bodies change. Knee joints have less cartilage; bones become more brittle and connective tissues less pliable.

"Just like the tires on your car begin to wear down from driving, the same is true of the lining of your joints," Dr. Shields says. "After 50 years of wear, you just don't have the shock-absorbing capabilities in your knee, let's say, as you did when you were in your 20s."

Most injuries are avoidable, fitness experts say. But you must listen to the changes that occur in your body as you age. You must warm up carefully, start an activity more slowly and leave more recovery time afterward.

You should also make sure to:

Invest in the right equipment

Good shoes are particularly important. Buy shoes designed for your activity; look for running shoes if you jog, for instance. They should fit well, cupping your heel without slippage and supporting your arch.

Follow a proper diet

It will help you maintain a healthy weight that puts less strain on your body, and you'll get the nutrients you need. For example, adults require 1,000 to 1,500 mg of calcium a day to keep bones strong.

Cross-train

That helps you avoid overuse injuries and keeps your overall fitness level high.

Pay attention to pain

The "no pain, no gain" mantra never made sense, and it's especially bad advice as you age. Pain is "your body's alarm system," Dr. Shields says.

Add activities with caution

Increase the intensity and volume of activity gradually.

Get a checkup

If you have been sedentary or relatively inactive, get a checkup to insure that you are in good health before starting your exercise program. 

You can take specific steps to avoid common sports-related injuries. Incorporating certain exercises into your fitness routine can reduce your risk for the most common sports injuries, Dr. Shields says. "The good news is that most of this stuff is preventable," he adds.

Babying boomer bodies

These are the parts of your anatomy most commonly affected in sports, the sports that threaten them, and ways you can help prevent damage.

Knee

Sports: Basketball, running, skiing.

Watch for: Strains or tears of the ligaments or cartilage.

Ounce of prevention: The muscles around the knee serve as a natural shock absorber for the joint. Strengthen them with knee extensions and hamstring curls. Lunges also work the quadriceps, hamstring and groin muscles.

Step forward with one foot, keeping the back straight, until the front knee is at a right angle. Begin by doing a set of 20 for each leg. Holding small dumbbell weights with your hands at your side can increase the intensity. You can also cross-train on a stationary bike.

Ankle

Sports: Basketball, running, soccer.

Watch for: Achilles' tendon injuries and sprains.

Ounce of prevention: Fine-tuning your sense of balance can help stave off ankle sprains. Walk along a 2-by-4 lying on the ground or balance on one leg. A pair of stretches while standing -- one with the knee straight and the heel on the ground, the other with the knee bent with hands on a wall -- hit the two muscles attached to the Achilles. Jogging uphill or a slow jog backward with stops and turns (don't fall) are good warm-ups for the Achilles tendon. Ankle braces and wraps can provide additional stability while keeping the joint warm.

Shoulder

Sports: Bicycling, golf, swimming, tennis, weight-lifting.

Watch for: Rotator cuff injuries or irritation.

Ounce of prevention: Do exercises that widen the space between the shoulder blade and the rotator cuff. This can head off impingement, in which the bone at the top of the shoulder blade rubs against that muscle. Shoulder shrugs -- bringing the tops of the shoulders toward the ears while holding small dumbbells -- are excellent. Or try external rotation exercises. With your arms at your side, bend them to form a 90-degree angle. Keep your elbows at your side and move your hands apart, toward your back. Use exercise bands to provide resistance; hook one end to a doorknob. Shoulder injuries often occur in tennis and golf when you try to put extra power behind a serve or approach shot. Always use proper form.

Elbow

Sports: Baseball, golf, tennis.

Watch for: Tennis and golfer's elbow.

Ounce of prevention: Tennis and golfer's elbow are general terms given to elbow pain caused by the repetitive motions of pitching, a tennis serve or a golf swing that can cause wear and tear on the muscles surrounding the joint. Strengthening the forearm can help. Tie a weight of 2 to 10 pounds (enough to tax your muscles without causing pain) to the middle of a rounded stick. With hands on either end, rotate the stick to reel in the weight. You also can do wrist curls with light hand weights. And you can stretch those muscles by extending your arm straight out, grasping your fingers with your other hand and gently pulling them back toward your body.

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