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Olympic Buzz Has Weekend Athletes Jumping into Sports, But too Much Exercise, Too Soon Can Have Painful Consequences

Hospital for Special Surgery Doctor Offers Fitness Tips to Avoid Injury

(New York, N.Y. July 24, 2008). As the upcoming Olympic Games shine the spotlight on sports and elite athletes, we're learning age is not necessarily an obstacle. Forty-one year-old Dara Torres' performance at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials wowed the judges. But she isn't the oldest athlete who'll be competing. Sixty year-old Laurie Lever, on the Australian equestrian team, will compete in the hazardous sport of show jumping.

Seeing these athletes of a certain age is enough to make many us get off our couches and jump into a sport or exercise program. But anybody who's been inactive for an extended period of time should exercise caution, according to Dr. Geoffrey Westrich, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon with offices in Fresh Meadows and at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, where he is Associate Professor of Orthopedic Surgery.

Dr. Westrich says people over 40 or those who've been sedentary are at particular risk of injury if they don't take a few simple steps before starting a sport or an exercise program. "You cannot overestimate the benefits of regular exercise for people of any age," Dr. Westrich said. "Exercise is good for the heart and lungs, it helps keep bones and muscles strong, plus, it can provide a psychological lift. Strengthening muscles can also protect a previously injured joint from further injury. And regular exercise can improve balance and mobility and even reduce the pain of arthritis."

But anyone who leaps into a sport or exercise program too quickly can suffer painful consequences, says Dr. Westrich, a baby boomer himself who plays tennis and goes running to keep in shape. "As we get older, our bodies change, and we are more prone to injury. Generally, people are not as flexible as they were in their 20's, response time is slower and we tire more quickly."

Weekend warriors, or those who try to cram all their exercise into one or two days a week, have a high rate of injury. And many people over 40 have had a previous injury, which leaves them more susceptible to getting hurt again. Even less strenuous activities such as golf can cause injury if people aren't properly warmed up. Dr. Westrich recommends a balanced fitness program that includes cardiovascular, or aerobic exercise, such as bicycling, brisk walking or running; strength training; and stretching for flexibility.

He has the following tips for injury prevention:

  • Always warm up and stretch before any physical activity. Warm up with stationary cycling or light jogging or walking for at least 10 or 15 minutes. Then slowly and gently stretch, holding each stretch for about 15 seconds.
  • Try to engage in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. If you're pressed for time, you can break it up into10- or 15-minute segments.
  • Don't overdo it. Listen to your body and know your limits. Stop if you're in pain or very tired. Those who keep going when they're exhausted are at greater risk of injury. Running or playing a sport while having pain will only make an injury worse.
  • Take adequate time to rest in between exercising or athletic activities. When strength training with weights, rest for at least one day in between workouts.
  • Swimming is good for people with arthritis or joint problems, but get out of the pool if you have a cramp and slow down if you become winded.
  • Use the proper protective gear, such as helmets and knee pads, and wear the right shoes for a particular activity.
  • For certain sports, take lessons and invest in good equipment. Proper form reduces the chance of developing an overuse injury such as tendonitis or stress fractures.
  • When changing your activity level, increase it in increments of no more than 10 percent each week. For example, if you normally walk two miles a day and want to get to four, slowly increase your distance each week until you reach your higher goal. In strength training, increase your weights gradually.
  • Drink a lot of fluids, especially if exercising in hot weather. Try to eat a balanced diet.
  • If you have had a previous sports injury, consult an orthopedic surgeon who can help you develop an exercise plan to accomplish your goals and minimize the chance of injury. Dr. Westrich says the key to injury prevention is a little bit of planning. "Exercising good judgement now will ensure that people get the most out of their fitness program and see results later on."

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