Stay Out There
Forget menacing tackles that cause concussions or wipeouts on the slopes that break bones, in the real-world version of athletics known as “regular exercise,” nothing knocks you off your game as much as an overuse injury, which come about when you put your body through the same motion over and over.
Shin splints, tendinitis, stress fracture, sore bum — whatever your ache, it not only sucks but it often knocks you back to square one. Not fun.
“People obviously get hurt for lots of reasons, and there’s no way to prevent every injury, but many of the injuries that bring people to my office are preventable with proper training,” says Michael Ross, M.D., a sports medicine physician with the Rothman Institute and the medical director of the Performance Lab in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
What’s more, Dr. Ross says many of those pains would be much less of an issue if people used more common sense when they go about their favorite athletic activities. “As you get older, you’re going to need to tweak your attitude about training,” he says. “This is especially true if you’ve had some long breaks between exercise routines. And now’s when you really need to pay more attention to your body’s cues.”
Here’s his best advice to keep you in the game.
Build Hip Strength
When people think about working their core they often focus solely on the abdominal muscles. But you need strong hip muscles in order to have good support for your legs, knees, ankles and feet when your body’s in motion.
Weak hips can force your knees inward (knock-knees) to compensate and keep you in balance. But your knees aren’t intended to handle that function — your hips are. In a 2007 study at the University of Calgary that explored the root of runners’ leg pain, 93 percent of participants had weak hip muscles. After undergoing a six-week hip strength program, 90 percent of that group were pain-free.
Try this: Stand on one leg, facing a mirror, with a light weight in the opposite hand. Try to hold your balance for as long as possible while keeping your pelvis level and keeping your knee from turning inward. Repeat a few times (this can be done daily). As you improve, you can challenge yourself by increasing the weight or by adding a squat or a lunge. Just remember the goal is to keep your pelvis level and your knees in alignment.
Build Shoulder Strength
The muscles behind the shoulder are ignored “a lot,” says Dr. Ross. “Especially when people go back to the gym.
They tend to want to build the things they can see — the chest, the biceps. But that comes at the expense of these muscles behind you, and that leads to that hunched-over appearance.” The muscle imbalance also means your shoulder joint isn’t as supported or as flexible as it should be, making it more prone to injury. It’s estimated that 20 percent of all overuse injuries are shoulder related.
Try this: Lie facedown on the floor with a light weight in each hand, arms stretched out so you're in a 'T' shape. Pinch your shoulder blades together, bringing your arms off the floor. Lower and repeat; do three sets of 10 every other day. As this becomes easier, you can increase the weight or try resting your chest on a stability ball or Bosu ball.
Pick the Right Resistance
Gym goers and CrossFit fanatics are notorious for over-estimating the amount of weight they should be lifting. “Just because there are plates on the bar, that doesn't mean you should be using that weight for your dead lifts,” says Dr. Ross. “You have to pick a weight that is right for you and for your goal.” So while you may be able to eke out a set, what you’re really doing is stressing your tendons, ligaments and muscles beyond their capacity — the classic setup for an overuse injury. Try this: Have a plan before you pick up the weight. Ross says most middle-agers who are new to exercise or who are in the earlier stages of a routine will probably want to make muscle endurance their first goal. “That means aiming to do about 15 to 20 reps, but using a weight that’s light enough so that reps 19 and 20 are the only truly difficult reps,” he says. “If you’re struggling at rep 3 or 5 or 10, you need to switch to a lighter weight.”
Fix Your Form
Whether you want to run a 5K, take up tennis or sweat it out in a Bikram yoga class, it’s important to nail down the proper technique before you test your limits. “Doing too much, too soon is a classic cause of injury for those in their 40s and 50s,” says Dr. Ross. “Maybe they’re trying to make up for lost time and started out too intense, or found those first few exercise sessions easy and thought they could push it, but if you don’t take the time to groom your form you will get hurt.” Try this: Ask for help! Booking even one session with a coach or certified personal trainer will help you spot mistakes in your form so you can fix them and avoid problems down the road. In a group class, pay close attention to the instructor’s form cues. At home, use a mirror so you can double check your positioning, as many times what “feels” right isn’t an accurate measure.
Expect Sore Muscles
In fact, take some pride in experiencing soreness a day or two after a new workout: It means you challenged your muscles, a good sign you’re on the path to improved fitness. The next few times you put your body through its paces, those muscles will begin to recognize whatever made you sore and get with the program. However, if your muscles are still sore three to five days after the workout, you might have an injury that needs to be checked out by a doctor. Try this: Follow the 10 percent rule — don’t increase your activity level more than 10 percent each week. (So if you walked 2 miles three times this week, you can go 2.2 miles three times next week.) That gives your body time to adapt and respond to your efforts. Allowing time for a proper warm-up and cool-down are also important.
Don't Believe in Magic
“Rest doesn’t fix things. Fixing things fixes things,”says Dr. Ross, who says he wouldn’t need to work if he had a nickel for every patient who admitted they thought their nagging aches would just go away. “Your 40s and 50s just is not the age where things heal on their own. The reason your pain won’t get better just because you took some time off is because during that rest period you didn’t change anything.” Try this: Make a concerted effort to follow tips 1 through 5, above, and don’t be so stubborn that you won’t seek help. You can reach out to your primary care doctor or physical therapist (if you have an established relationship), but a sports physician may be able to pinpoint the root of your problem much quicker.
Don't Be a Lemming
Who hasn’t been at least a little curious to try the Bollywood workout or see if they could handle a boot camp class or check out a color run? “There’s always a new exercise fad,” says Dr. Ross, “but don’t do something just because someone else is doing it. Make your workout of choice fit with your current fitness level, your goals and your lifestyle.” His point: If you’re following the crowd, chances are good you’re not listening to your body. At the same time, don’t try to keep up with the person next to you on the walking path, stick to your own pace. Try this: March (or swim or hike or box) to the beat of your own drum. You know you need to get some type of physical activity in every day, so find something you enjoy and generate your own exercise buzz.
If We're Too Late ...
If you’re currently taking sometime off to heal an injury, sports physician Michael Ross offers this free advice:
* Ask your doctor or physical therapist what you can do in the meantime so you don’t drop back to square one.
* Ask them if they think poor technique played a role in your injury, and how you can correct that once you’ve been given the green light to resume the activity.
* Don’t jump right in where you left off; give your body time to reacquaint itself with your workouts.