Are you keeping active as you age by playing a sport? Many adults enjoy golf, tennis and other activities well into their senior years. Staying active is essential to healthy aging, and playing sports is one way to do just that. But it’s critical that so-called “vintage athletes” learn how to prevent the common injuries associated with their favorite sports. Keep in mind: 60% of older athletes who start a new exercise program experience an injury within the first six weeks.
Good news: With proper training, equipment and preparation, age and even physical limitations don’t have to pose a barrier to sports participation.
Karl Knopf, EdD, former director of fitness therapy and senior fitness for the International Sports Sciences Association, offers these guidelines to help you prevent common injuries…
Avoid risky sports that involve potentially dangerous physical contact, jumping and high-impact and/or high-intensity activity. Activities to avoid: Zumba (although Zumba for Seniors and Zumba Gold are okay)…long-distance running…rock climbing…football…hockey…squash…power lifting.
Always warm up. Before you begin any physical activity, warm up to get the blood flowing to your muscles. This usually entails a gentler version of the game you intend to play. Example: If you’re about to start a tennis match, gently hit the ball back and forth with your opponent at half speed…and practice forward and lateral moves for about 10 minutes. Another option: While taking a warm bath or shower, perform gentle moves such as shoulder shrugs, etc.
Stretch daily to keep limber, as well as after any physical activity. Do slow, static stretches (where you remain stationary and hold a stretch for 30 to 60 seconds) combined with deep breathing. Many sports and activities use the same muscles over and over. Try to stretch muscles that are overly tight such as hamstrings…and strengthen muscles that are underused in your sport or activity.
Strengthen your core. Your abdominal and back muscles—known as your core—are the powerhouse behind all sports and functional activities of daily living. When your core is properly aligned and strong, you’ll have great posture and better function, balance and performance. You’ll also lower your risk for back pain. Core exercises should be performed daily to both prevent and rehab after an injury. Many gyms, fitness instructors and physical therapists can design a core-strengthening program for you. You also can try Pilates and yoga. Look for certified instructors, and use caution—if an exercise doesn’t feel right, stop! Be especially cautious with online courses since there’s no one there to correct your posture.
Don’t overtax your body. If your body hurts after playing a sport for two hours, evaluate whether that activity is the best one for you. Also: Always rest up and let your body recover before playing again.
Consider getting regular massages. Massage therapy is a must for professional athletes, but it also can benefit vintage athletes. It helps relieve muscle tension, improve circulation and speed healing from injury. Acupuncture and acupressure are helpful as preventive measures and for rehabilitation from injury.
Avoid playing outdoors on very hot, very cold or smoggy days. Poor environmental conditions can stress your cardiovascular system and ability to breathe. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water.
Don’t be a summer warrior. Many people who are inactive all winter long sign up to play a sport in the spring and summer. Result: Before the playing season is even over, they’re out of the game with an injury. Better: Train to play…don’t play to train. Use the off-season to prepare your body for your sport. Examples: If you plan to play softball, do Tai Chi during the winter to improve your reflexes and balance…weight training to prepare your arms to catch and throw and your shoulders to hit the ball…and gentle runs and sprints to help you run quickly from base to base. If you plan to ski in the winter, start ski conditioning in the preseason!
Racquet sports. Tennis, paddleball, pickleball and other racquet sports are hard on your joints and tax the cardiovascular system. Common injuries: Fractures from falls…joint injuries (most often to the knees, shoulders, ankles, wrists and neck)…painful inflammatory overuse syndromes (tendonitis) such as tennis elbow…foot problems…and eye injury. Also, since racquet sports require you to mostly use one side of the body, they can cause painful misalignments. Protective equipment can help prevent injuries. Examples: Wear protective eye gear for racquet ball. Proper footwear is critical. Shoes today are designed for specific movements—running shoes for forward motion and to decrease impact…“tennis shoes” designed for lateral motion…etc. Replace your shoes regularly. Be sure to warm up before you play, and stretch between sets and after you play.
Golf. Similar to racquet sports, golf is an asymmetrical game where you primarily use one side of your body. Common injuries: Golfer’s elbow (a form of tendonitis or inflammation of the forearm)…knee, hip and lower-back strain. Focus on strengthening and stretching your forearm and wrist to prevent inflammation, and use the appropriate grip and equipment. Walk around for a few minutes before you begin a round of golf, and stretch gently at each hole. Also: Take some practice swings with your nondominant arm to balance out the one-sided swings you’ll be taking while playing.
Swimming and water exercise. Water-based activities such as aquacise are excellent gentle exercise regimens for older adults or athletes recovering from an injury. Common injuries: If you swim laps, especially if you do the crawl or freestyle strokes that require an over-the-head motion, you could strain your shoulders. Likewise, turning your head to one side to breathe could lead to lower-back pain. Start with easy laps to warm up…stretch after your laps…and mix up your strokes. Example: Do 25 breast strokes for every 75 crawl strokes. Don’t do laps daily, but opt for other activities that don’t involve the shoulders as much on other days, such as walking, jogging or biking. Even when you are in the water, you may perspire, so stay hydrated.
Canoeing, kayaking and paddle-boarding. These activities rely on the upper body (chest, arms, shoulders) to do most of the work. Prepare for water sports by doing Pilates, yoga or weight training to stretch the chest muscles and strengthen the back muscles. Engage in balance drills if you are a stand-up paddleboarder. Warm up by walking or jogging a little before you get on board. Observe good posture while rowing, and make sure your shoulders aren’t rounding forward. Switch the oar from side to side to balance out the muscles you use.
Biking. Common injuries: Falls can lead to fractures. Also, back pain because you round your body over the bike to reach the handlebars…sore wrists and hands from absorbing more of your body weight than they’re used to…and sore knees and ankles from pedaling. A bruised tailbone is common since bike seats tend to be quite hard. Important: Men who ride their bikes too long or too hard can experience numbness in the groin and genitals. Get the right size and type of bike for your height and body frame. Best: Ask at a bike shop for advice on the type and size of bike and to adjust the seat, handlebars and mirrors for you. Buy a quality helmet, padded bike shorts and/or a padded seat, and padded gloves to cushion your palms. Always start off pedaling slowly and easily until you warm up. Stretch after a ride, and apply ice to sore joints.
Bowling. This is another one-sided sport that requires you to throw a heavy ball with force. Common injuries: Hip, knee, shoulder and back strain. Building up your core and leg strength is essential. Observe good body mechanics and posture while bowling. Warm up with some gentle rolls before starting a game.