During 30 years of running and cycling I'd never suffered a serious injury. Then, last year, at age 52, I decided to enter a half-marathon. I bought new running shoes, doubled my mileage and, within a week, severely strained my Achilles tendon. I lost the entry fee, a month of training and my swagger. It was a valuable lesson.
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Our bodies may change with age, but we don't need to trade the gym for the bridge table. In fact, new research shows that exercise can help prevent Alzheimer's, protect against stroke, increase life expectancy and even change our DNA so our muscles work more efficiently.
As we get older, though, we need to be smarter about exercise. Tendons, muscles, joints and reaction times change. We don't bounce back from injury as quickly. Fortunately, new science reveals that a few simple actions, done two or three times a week, can cut your risk of getting hurt. Choose the few that work best for you.
1. Ease into exercise. One sure way to hurt yourself is to do too much, too soon. "You want to literally warm up your muscles, to raise their temperature before you stress them," says Katherine Coyner, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. If you're going to jog, start by walking. Playing tennis? Jog around the court a few times, then add eight to 10 jumping jacks.
2. Embrace the squat. "The single best exercise to prevent injury and maintain leg and lower-back strength, especially as you get older, is the squat," says Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Stand with your feet shoulder-distance apart and squat, back straight, until your thighs are almost parallel to the ground; rise slowly. Repeat up to 20 times.
3. Target the middle. The muscles in your core are the fulcrum around which all other muscles in your body pivot, says Coyner. Without a sturdy core, serving a tennis ball or even walking can strain outlying muscles. To build core strength, try the plank — a simple exercise that resembles a pushup (see illustration) — in which your forearms rest on the floor. Hold your core steady for 30 seconds, rest and repeat.
4. Play flamingo. "Equilibrium declines with age," says Vonda Wright, M.D., author of Fitness After 40. And wobbling can contribute to trips and sprained ankles. Increase your balance by standing on one leg a few times a day, she says. Hold for 20 seconds; switch legs. After mastering that, stand on a towel, to make the surface beneath your feet uneven. Then do the exercise with your eyes closed.
Next: Take care of your Achilles. »
5. Coddle the Achilles. Achilles tendon injuries are especially common among older runners, a 2011 study found. That's because as we age, our connective tissues lose some elasticity. Stretch your Achilles by leaning against a wall, with one leg extended behind you, heel on the ground. Hold for 30 seconds, then slightly bend the knee on the extended leg and hold for another 30 seconds. Switch legs.
6. Listen to the twinges. Many of us, including hard-core exercisers like me, continue to work out through soreness and pain. "If something hurts, back off from training," Wright says. If the discomfort lingers, see a doctor. After age 40, muscles contain fewer satellite cells — specialized stem cells that help tissues repair themselves. With fewer satellite cells, minor muscle tears can turn into major injuries.
7. Strengthen your shoulders. Many older tennis and golf players are startled when they hurt their shoulders after years of injury-free play. "With age you lose some of the water content in tendons and ligaments," Coyner explains. Drier and more brittle, they can rip or fray. Strengthen your shoulders by grasping both ends of an elastic tube and pulling the tubing apart. Repeat five times.
8. Drink chocolate milk. "Consuming some protein after exercise, especially as we get older, appears to help the muscles rebuild themselves more effectively," Phillips says. When the protein is combined with carbohydrates, such as the sugar in chocolate milk, muscles recover even better. If you're trying to lose weight, "plain milk works well, too," Phillips adds — but it isn't nearly as much fun to drink.
Next: Prevent sore heels and arches with this exercise. »
9. Grab some golf balls. Sore heels and arches are common in older exercisers and can result in full-blown plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the connective tissue in the foot that can take months to heal. Prevent the problem by loosening the arch and tissues in your feet. "Roll a golf ball over your arches," Wright says. Or keep a golf ball in the bathroom "and roll your bare foot over it while you brush your teeth."
10. Do the laundry lift. Strength training increases muscle mass — and also helps to stabilize and protect your joints. Studies show that 14 weeks of strength training lengthened older adults' muscle fibers by 10 percent and stiffened their tendons by an impressive 64 percent. You don't have to lift heavy weights — light ones are also effective. Can't get to the gym? Lift your laundry instead.
11. Stretch strategically. First, we were told to stretch before exercise. Then we were told to stretch after our workouts. The latest news? Stretching might actually decrease muscle power, thus contributing to injuries if done while muscles are cold. "Stretching is important," Wright stresses. But stretch at some other time during the day, perhaps while watching TV or right before bed.
12. Take a load off. Days off are more important as you get older. "It's hard for some people to accept, but we do not recover as quickly after age 40 or 50 as when we're 20 or 30," Wright says. So take at least one day off every week or, at most, go for a gentle walk. If you're still fatigued or achy the next day, take another day off. "Life is a long race," she adds. "You can and should take it easy sometimes."