Helping aging athletes avoid `Boomeritis'

The Middle Ages

November 05, 2006|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Reporter

A new feature about staying young, growing old and what happens in between

A few weeks ago, podiatrist John Senatore stood near Mile 22 of the Baltimore Marathon, cheering loudly for the runners - quite a few of whom were his patients at Union Memorial Hospital's Sports Medicine Center.

Today he's in New York to encourage his wife, who is running her first marathon at the age of 45.

Caroline Senatore joins an ever-growing group of middle-aged long distance runners. Last year, nearly 17,000 of the New York Marathon's 36,856 finishers were in their 40s and 50s. In the months they spent preparing for a 26.2-mile race, many learned that training included managing tendinitis, knee problems and heel pain.

Baby-boomer athletes are the first generation of middle-aged Americans to engage in competitive sports in such large numbers. Discovering uncomfortable truths about their aging bodies is part of the price of pursuing their ambitions.

"People in this age group are looking for a new challenge," says Senatore, 50, himself a former marathoner. "A marathon is a big undertaking. People do marathons for the same reasons they climb mountains and jump out of planes. It challenges them physically, emotionally and intellectually."

It also introduces them to more orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists.

Boomers accounted for nearly one-third of all Americans participating in cycling, basketball, running and other sports in 1998, according to the most recent study by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. During that one year, the age group sustained more than 1 million sports injuries, leading to nearly $19 billion in medical costs.

Now there's even a term for the competitive athletic injuries of middle age: Boomeritis.

Nick DiNubile, an orthopedic surgeon in the Philadelphia area credited with coining the title, admits to having first-hand knowledge of this condition.

So why are fiftysomethings pounding concrete pavements, playing soccer, competing in triathlons - and lining up for MRIs?

"We were the first generation that realized some of the aging process is under our control, that inactivity and lifestyle has a lot to do with aging," the 54-year-old surgeon says. "We're also the first generation who, in droves, is trying to stay active on an aging frame."

These days, boomer party talk can rapidly devolve into discussions about degenerative and herniated discs, tendinitis, bursitis, rotator cuff problems, tennis elbow, wrist tendinitis and even jumper's knee.

"Sports in midlife is injury management," DiNubile says. "We have doubled our life expectancy in the last 100 years, but our frames are not designed to last that long. There's a mismatch between longevity and durabilty. It becomes a matter of how do you extend the warranty on your frame."

Baby boomers suffer more injuries from overuse - common in such repetitive sports as swimming, running, golf and racket sports - than from acute trauma, according to Andrew Tucker, director of sports medicine at Union Memorial Hospital. He says the aging process reduces flexibility and muscle mass, which can diminish athletic performance and set the stage for injury.

One universal training recommendation is to take time to stretch and maintain flexibility. Another is to spend more time lifting weights and strengthening muscles that naturally weaken with age. Physicians and physical therapists also advise exercising caution and, when injured, practicing patience and realism; "Fix-me-itis" has become a companion

condition to "boomeritis," DiNubile says.

For the past year, marathon runner Mike Gimbel has been slowly recovering from a herniated disc. Director of substance abuse education for Sheppard Pratt Health System, Gimbel, 54, calls himself "an exercise addict." He says he enjoys pushing himself to a high level of training that can clear out his anxieties, fire up new ideas, and earn marathon finish times that qualified him for six consecutive Boston marathons.

Now, however, he has been cross training on the elliptical trainer at the Maryland Athletic Club and slowly returning to running. He hopes to complete a half-marathon next year with an outside goal of another marathon.

He has no plans of giving up the sport.

"Running marathons keeps me trim and motivated, and that makes me feel good, although the injuries are a pain in the butt," he says. "Like any athlete, I just deal with them."

Turning back clock

Baltimore-Washington attorney Mark Muedeking, 51, recently broke both of his arms in a cycling accident one week before he was due to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. That grueling competition starts with a 2.4-mile ocean swim, proceeds to a 112-mile bike race and ends with a full marathon.

A football player in college, Muedeking has competed in triathlons for the past 16 years.

"My dad had his first heart attack when he was 42," he says. "I do this because it keeps me healthy. It also makes you feel a lot younger when you can do an Ironman and be 51 years old."

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