If not taken in moderation, exercise is a pain for seniors

Workouts: More active lifestyles among the elderly are leading to a rise in sports-related injuries.

Life After 50

March 24, 2002|By Korky Vann | Korky Vann,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There's no question that keeping fit can help you live a longer, healthier life. Regular exercise increases mobility and muscle strength and reduces the risk of everything from hypertension, heart attack and stroke to diabetes, osteoporosis and depression.

The good news is that as the benefits of exercise become known, more and more elderly people are getting into fitness programs. The bad news is they've got the aching backs to prove it.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says sports-related injuries in older people are on the rise - up 33 percent in baby boomers and 54 percent in adults 65 and older since 1990. While many of these injuries are in connection with more active sports, such as bicycling, weight training, in-line skating and skiing, experts say the leading cause of sprains, strains and stress fractures among older athletes is overexertion.

The syndrome is so common among baby boomers that orthopedic doctors have coined a phrase for it - boomeritis. Some of the most common injuries include muscle strains of the back, neck, shoulder, knee and ankle. And too much pain is no gain, says Dr. Carl Nissen, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Connecticut Health Center. While it's important to stay active, it's also important to play it safe.

"There's no doubt that aging has an effect on our muscles, tendons and ligaments," Nissen said. "As we age, our bodies are more prone to injuries and heal less quickly. That doesn't mean you should give up on exercise. It means you should start slowly, build up gradually and listen to your body. If you wake up the next morning with soreness that lasts all day, or worse, sharp pain, you did too much. Scale it back, and take it easy."

Retail trends show that when overdoing puts a cramp in their style, weekend warriors are seeking relief from their aching muscles with more than their father's ace bandage or their mother's ice bag. In response to the demand, manufacturers have flooded the market with back and body massagers, foot baths, hot/cold compression wraps, sensory-relaxation systems and magnetic therapy products, along with a new generation of hot tubs, whirlpool baths and steam showers.

The Sunbeam Corp. recently introduced a new line of home health-care products aimed at weekend warriors. Items include heating pads, reusable cold gel packs and hot/cold compression back wraps. At www.ouch.com, customers can find more than 12,000 products related to orthopedics, sports medicine, home health care and pain management.

Industry analysts say advertising campaigns for hot tubs and spas are increasingly aimed at middle-agers. The reason? Nearly half of all hot tub owners are in the 45-to-64 age bracket, and the National Spa and Pool Institute says buyers over 55 are the fastest-growing market segment.

In spite of these products, doctors say most people are confused about how to treat common sports injuries. For simple sprains and strains, Nissen advises the "RICE" treatment, which stands for rest, ice, compress and elevate the injured limb.

To avoid injuries altogether, orthopedic surgeons recommend the following precautions: Always consult your health care provider before beginning any exercise program, and ask for advice in designing a fitness program to meet your personal goals and needs. Listen to your body.

Don't succumb to the weekend warrior syndrome. Compressing your physical activity into two days sets you up for trouble and doesn't increase your fitness level. Use the 10 percent rule. Increase activity in small increments, 10 percent a week, to avoid overexertion. Warm up before you exercise. Be sure to wear appropriate safety gear and shoes. If you experience severe pain or swelling, stop exercising immediately, and see your doctor.

Korky Vann writes for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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