In the last twenty years, there’s been a radical shift in our concept of aging. While past generations might have slowed down as they grew older, now people over 50 are embracing vigorous activities, sometimes to their detriment. While exercise is a key part of staying healthy, it’s important to remember that your 50/60/70-year-old body is quite different from the 25-year-old version — it injures more easily and is slower to recover. So if you’re thinking about a marathon, a cross-country bike ride or adopting a new sport — go in with a plan.
“As we age, the most important aspect is foundational fitness,” says Steven Copp, MD, head of the Division of Orthopedic Surgery at Scripps Clinic. “To gear up for an event once in a while, without training for it, will result in disaster.”
Disastrous results could include damage to the rotator cuff, Achilles tendon, quadriceps or hamstring. All these injuries increase without foundational fitness. This is true whether you are training for a big event or enjoying a spirited game among friends each weekend.
“The conflict is the time required to train,” says Dr. Copp. “If you’re only doing your sport once a week, you need to do something three other days a week to maintain muscle and tendon health.”
Foundational fitness is a good starting point to staying healthy and injury free. But each workout, whether it is a short run or an afternoon playing soccer, requires a specific regimen to warm and stretch muscles and connective tissue. Dr. Copp recommends a short warm-up, followed by stretching for five to 10 minutes. Focus on the muscle groups you will be taxing during the workout.
One of the toughest fitness decisions is when to take part in an activity and when to pass.
“When you’re young, you can work through fatigue,” says Dr. Copp. “But as you get older, pushing forward with your workout despite fatigue can increase your chances of injury. Sometimes you have to listen to your body and say: ‘maybe today’s not the day.’ It’s a difficult decision because we derive a great deal of satisfaction and enjoyment from participation.”
The other side is what to do if you feel discomfort while exercising. Dr. Copp notes that if the pain is severe, you should stop your workout immediately. Importantly, you need to gauge how you feel the following day. If you’re still feeling the strain, you may have to modify your program or suspend it temporarily. If you are experiencing extreme pain, or having trouble with your daily activities, see a physician.
If you’re over 50 and just starting to work out, proceed cautiously. Choose low-impact activities like cycling, swimming, yoga or the elliptical trainer. Gear up slowly and make sure you are warmed up and stretched. Be careful and have fun.