The 40+ Fitness Guide
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The 40+ Fitness Guide

After a certain age, if you're picking up a new sport -- or falling in love again with an old one -- remember that while the spirit may be willing, the bones and tendons may not be. Here, how to reap the benefits of being active without getting injured.

Have Fun Getting Fit

Jean Larose was 47 years old and ready to have some fun. She had spent the previous five years caring for her sick mother, raising two teenage daughters, and working stressful 12-hour shifts as an intensive care unit coordinator in a Springfield, Massachusetts, hospital. Four months after her mother died and her daughters were off on their own, Larose and her husband, David, moved to Summerville, on the South Carolina coast. She found a full-time job as a secretary for a hospital maternity ward, "a much happier environment," she says. One day she saw an ad in her local paper for a kayaking club. Remembering the peace she'd felt as a child canoeing on her uncle's lake in Massachusetts, she went to a meeting. "I went out the first day with another club member, borrowing her extra kayak," she recalls. "From that day on I was hooked."

In a few weeks Larose bought her own kayak and now, four years later, she kayaks at least five hours per week, alone or with friends or her dog, around the islands where she lives. "I love being among the seabirds, even the gators," says Larose, now 51. "Kayaking has helped me build upper-body strength and increase my overall energy, but most of all it has helped me mentally. I feel a sense of calm when I'm on the water; it puts everything in perspective."

Generation Fit

More and more baby-boomer women are returning to sports they once loved or trying sports they never attempted. "Overall participation in 10 sports among women ages 35 to 64 has increased significantly in the last five years," says Larry Weindruch, a spokesman for the National Sporting Goods Association. Some sports, including kayaking (up an estimated 144 percent) and jogging (up 24 percent), have seen dramatic surges. Twenty-seven million American women ages 35 to 64 walk regularly for exercise -- 11 million swim, 6 million hike, 6 million bicycle, 4 million jog, 3 million play golf, close to 2 million play tennis, and 1.5 million enjoy kayaking or rafting. Team sports are attracting boomers, too. More than 1 million women over 35 belong to softball teams; about half a million play soccer.

Not surprisingly, sports-related injuries among boomers also increased, by about 33 percent through the 1990s, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. However, recent data suggest that some of these injury numbers are beginning to fall -- perhaps boomers are figuring out how to play sports without getting hurt. Avoiding injury it isn't easy. After 40, your muscles and connective tissues lose elasticity, your sense of balance declines, your reflexes and reaction time slow and you tire more easily, all changes that can make you more injury-prone.

"Boomeritis" is the term used to describe this increased vulnerability, says Nicholas DiNubile, MD, author of FrameWork: Your 7-Step Program for Healthy Muscles, Bones and Joints, who coined the phrase. "The losses may begin after age 35 or so, but they are slow and incremental. Often you don't realize they've been happening until you do something for the first time in years and you realize it's not as easy as it used to be," Dr. DiNubile says. "Women don't just lose bone in their 40s and 50s; at that age they also lose muscle at a rate of 1 percent per year or 10 percent per decade. So you might not be able to hit a tennis ball as hard or ride a bicycle as far as you used to." The good news: The more you exercise, the more you can slow down these declines -- even reverse them.

Avoiding injury takes planning. "In your 20s you might have thought nothing of lacing up your running shoes and jogging for an hour without any preparation. Do that in your 40s and you'll probably feel it for days afterward if you don't actually injure yourself," says Ed Wojtys, MD, director of sports medicine at the University of Michigan.

See our guide to eight sports. Each section includes a "key move" from trainer and owner Jonathan Ross, an exercise especially good for that sport. For overall fitness, combine all the key moves.

How to Play It Safe

Choose a Sport That Works with Your Body

If you already have a touch of arthritis in your knees, running or other high impact sports could worsen it. On the other hand, swimming or biking can strengthen the shock-absorbing muscles around the knees, helping protect them from further damage. At risk for osteoporosis? Swimming won't help maintain bone strength, but jogging, tennis and other impact sports will.

Start Gradually and Build Slowly

"When walking or running, for instance, increase the duration or intensity of the exercise by no more than 10 percent per week," says Mary Lloyd Ireland, MD, president of the Kentucky Sports Medicine Clinic, in Lexington, and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. "In golf, you should practice and get proper swing mechanics before playing a round. Try to overdo it and you increase injury risk."

Warm Up -- but Don't Stretch Before You Play

"Stretching before exercise is a common mistake that often leads to injury, because the muscles aren't warmed up yet," says Jonathan Ross, director of personal training at Sport Fit, in Bowie, Maryland, and the American Council on Exercise's 2006 Personal Trainer of the Year. "Instead, warm up before playing by doing an easier version of the moves you do during the sport -- walk a quarter mile before jogging or cycling; hit a few practice balls before playing tennis or golf. Stretch at the end of your workout, when your body may be most flexible."

Sports Safety Are you ready to return to the sports you enjoyed in your younger days? Protect your body before you step up your workout. For stretches and strategies that prevent "boomeritis," go to

Tips to Protect Yourself

The tough thing about middle age is that you are more prone to injuries when you play sports. Dr. Ireland notes it always takes much longer than you think to heal, often up to six months. Adds Dr. DiNubile, "Many baby boomers have the mindset that they should be able to do the sports they used to do at the same level they used to do them, and if they get injured, that there should be an instant solution to overcome it quickly. The goal should be to give the injury time to heal while doing other activities to keep fit. For example, ride a stationary bike while you're recovering from a shoulder injury." To minimize damage:

  1. Stop as soon as you feel pain. Don't "play through the injury." You might worsen it.
  2. RICE your injury: Rest the injured area. Ice it to reduce swelling. Compress it with bandages. Elevate the injured body part.
  3. Take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (such as ibuprofen or aspirin) for the first couple of days after the injury -- but not beyond three days without a doctor's instructions. These medications reduce inflammation but may cause stomach upset or prolong healing time.
  4. If you have a long-term condition -- an injury that hasn't completely healed or a chronic problem such as arthritis -- consult your doctor about the best way to handle pain and prevent further injury.
  5. Know the difference between healthy soreness and an actual injury. Muscles that are simply sore after a workout may ache for a day or two, but the soreness will ease steadily. Joint swelling, pain that persists or worsens beyond 48 hours, problems putting weight on a limb or with normal activity (limping, for example), or one-sided pain (in one knee or ankle or shoulder) should be checked by a doctor.

The Post-40 Exercise Advantage

Exercising slows the muscle loss that happens as we age and it builds new muscle. Studies show that playing a sport can help control weight, let you sleep better at night, provide increased energy during the day, and decrease your risk of osteoporosis, diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and pain associated with arthritis. "I've seen women in their 40s and 50s who are in the best shape of their lives," says trainer Jonathan Ross. In fact, a recent Harvard study found that even weekend-only athletes have a lower death rate from all causes than sedentary people.

Then there are the emotional benefits. In a recent University of Illinois study, women with a median age of 50 who started a walking program not only reported improved mood and less irritability but also fewer problems with hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. "Exercising leads to improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness that may account for some of these benefits, but other biochemical changes, the social aspect of participating in a sport and an increased sense of self-esteem also contribute to improved psychological well-being in women who exercise regularly," says study head Steriani Elavsky, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology at Penn State. "Sports offer a distraction from daily life and time for themselves, which can make them feel better."

Mucho Macho? Advice for Your Weekend Warrior

Even more than women, "men are likely to overestimate their fitness level," says Dr. Wojtys. Result? A high risk of injuries. Compounding the problem: Men may be likelier than women to "play through the pain," which can worsen injuries and lengthen recovery time. Yet these macho tendencies may have some benefits. A recent study from the University of Missouri-Columbia notes that the more men agree with stereotypical masculine notions of success and gender roles, the harder they seem to work at injury rehab.

Of course, ideally you'd like your weekend warrior to avoid getting injured to begin with. To that end, Dr. Wojtys says your warrior should:

  • Get a checkup before starting a sport. If someone has gained a lot of weight over the years, smokes, or has a family history of heart disease, playing a rigorous game could raise his risk of a heart attack.
  • Remember that a weekend player may take three months to get in shape rather than six weeks. He should practice different aspects of his game on different days to avoid overworking any one body part.
  • Warm up for 15 minutes or so before he plays a sport by walking briskly to get circulation flowing.
  • Stop at the first sign of pain to determine if he should keep going.
  • Use the Monday-morning test. If he can barely get out of bed, he should cut back the next weekend.

Real Athletic Ladies

Tennis Star: Freelance writer Laurie Drake, 53, of Santa Monica, California; married
Her sport: Tennis
Biggest challenge: Knee problems. She wears knee support while playing and does knee strengthening exercises prescribed by her doctor.
Proudest sports moment: Winning her division's first-place trophy in the Los Angeles Westside Tennis league invitational tournament last year.
Why she loves it: The health benefits (she lost 15 pounds and dropped her cholesterol 30 mg/dL without dieting) and the fun. "I was a feisty little kid on the school playground and I've rediscovered that competitive spirit on the tennis court."

Cycler Chick: Teacher Betty Adkins, 50, of Gambrills, Maryland; married with three children, one grandchild
Her sport: Bicycling
Biggest challenge: She took her first bicycle vacation in France when she was in her late 30s and got so sore she had to sit out a couple of days.
Proudest sports moment: Zipping past her husband up mountainous Conor Pass, in Ireland, on their fourth bicycle vacation (this time, she had trained for four months).
Why she loves it: "It's a great way to see a country, and it lets you eat all you want every night."

Water Woman: School nurse Patti Carothers, 55, of The Woodlands, Texas; married with four kids
Her sport: Kayaking
Biggest challenge: Finding time to kayak as much as she would like with her busy schedule.
Proudest sports moment: Taking her mother kayaking through the Erie Canal on her 80th birthday.
Why she loves it: "It's so peaceful, you can do it alone or with friends, exploring where you can't go in a powerboat."

Soccer Mom: Office manager Deborah Cmar, 47, of Bow, New Hampshire; married with four kids
Her sport: Indoor soccer. She plays two nights a week on a town recreational team for women over 30.
Biggest challenge: Holding back. "I won't slide-tackle and risk breaking my ankle. I have to work the next day."
Proudest sports moment: "Any time my 10-year-old daughter sees me going to play with my team."
Why she loves it: "The fact that my team depends on me gets me going. I love strategizing, then celebrating later."

Our Guide to Eight Sports

WHY IT'S GREAT Low-impact allover workout. Good for all fitness levels, doable anywhere, low-cost aerobic workout, weight-bearing for bones. In a recent survey, 87% of boomers called it their favorite exercise. Aerobic (as long as you keep moving) as well as strengthening, works upper and lower body. Lifetime sport you can play with people of any age or skill level (because of handicapping); great upper-body and, if you walk, aerobic exercise.
COMMON INJURIES Shoulder and rotator cuff injuries. Heel spurs, shin splints (pain in the front part of the lower leg), knee problems, falls. Shoulder and rotator cuff injuries; tennis elbow (or tendinitis); low-back strain; knee pain (possibly caused by tears to muscles, ligaments or tendons). Lower-back problems because of torso twisting, shoulder and elbow tendinitis.
BEST WORKOUT STRATEGY Swim backstroke or freestyle rather than breaststroke or butterfly, which are harder on shoulders and knees. Warm up with shoulder shrugs or by bending arms at elbows and moving them back to press scapular blades closer together in back. Replace sneakers every six months to maintain good cushioning, which reduces the risk of heel spurs and other problems. Walk on smooth, shock-absorbing surfaces. Consider using hiking poles to improve balance and enhance your upper-body workout. To increase intensity, try racewalking (see Improve balance and strength with lunges, squats and push-ups. Walk frequently for stamina; squeeze a tennis ball in each hand to build arm strength.
KEY MOVES The Hitchhiker: Lying face down on bench or floor, arms straight out to sides at 90-degree angle to your torso, arms turned slightly so thumbs are pointing up to ceiling, slowly raise and lower arms. Begin with no weights, as this exercise is challenging, and try to gradually work up to doing exercise with one- to three-pound weights in each hand. Works rotator cuffs and scapular (shoulder) muscles. start with one set of 10 repetitions, five or six days a week. Work up to two to three sets of 10 reps, two to three times a week. Single Leg Stands: this improves balance and ankle strength. Fold a bath towel in half and stand on it barefoot. Lift right leg slightly so you're standing only on your left leg; try to hold position for 30 seconds. Repeat with other leg. Once you achieve 30 seconds, intensify by folding the towel again to add elevation and squishiness. start with one set of 10 repetitions, five or six days a week. Work up to two to three sets of 10 reps, two to three times a week. Side-Lunge Taps: step to your left, reach across your body with your right hand; touch your left foot, step back to center, repeat on right side. start with one set of 10 repetitions, five or six days a week. Work up to two to three sets of 10 reps, two to three times a week. Torso Twist: Arms folded on top of each other, bent at 90 degrees, hands on opposite elbows (I Dream of Jeannie style). slowly rotate at waist to right, center, left, center to help posture and flexibility. elephant trunk swings: standing, arms down, holding one five-pound weight with both hands, alternate putting your weight on one leg, then the other, swinging the handheld weight to the side you're standing on. For both: Do one set of 10 reps, five or six days a week. Work up to two to three sets of 10 reps, two to three times a week.

Our Guide to Eight Sports, Cont.

WHY IT'S GREAT Aerobic, strengthens upper body and torso, sitting up to paddle improves posture. Low-cost, aerobic, great calorie-burner, weightbearing for bone strength; can be done anywhere. You get to see sights while you exercise, terrific aerobic/ cardiovascular workout, strengthens and tones lower body. Strengthens legs and torso, can be a social sport, weight-bearing for bone strength.
COMMON INJURIES Soreness in the hips, lower back, arms, neck and shoulders caused by repetitive motion of paddling. Muscle strains, knee pain and tendinitis (particularly in women prone to arthritis), plantar fasciitis, shin splints, low-back pain. Sore hip flexor muscles (where hips meet pelvis), kneecap arthritis if prone to it, collisions/falls. Boomer cyclists die at nearly twice the rate of kids because they're less likely to wear helmets. Falls; twisted, sprained or broken ankles, and if you carry a pack, knee and lower back injuries. ?For every pound of weight on your back, your knees may support six times that amount,? says Dr. Wojtys.
BEST WORKOUT STRATEGY Row using full body rather than just arms; follow the paddle with your eyes, which forces you to use your torso as well as your arms. Build up slowly. Begin by walking, then doing a jog/walk. After a few weeks, jog uninterrupted. Jog on a shock-absorbing surface -- a rubberized track is ideal; grassy trails are second. Avoid concrete, blacktop or sidewalks. Replace sneakers at least twice a year. Show your old pair to the clerk so she can see the wear pattern and tell whether you need a shoe that minimizes pronation. Wear a helmet for outdoor cycling and cycle in safe areas. Choose a seat made for women's wider pelvises, with gel padding and a cutout in the center to absorb shock, reduce pressure and minimize saddle soreness. Adjust seat so your knee is just short of fully extended at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Bad back? Pick a bike with upright handles to avoid the bent-over racing position. Wear hiking shoes with well-cushioned soles and ankle support and use hiking poles for balance. Take frequent short hikes, starting with flat terrain and building up to hillier terrain.
KEY MOVES Alternating Dumbbell Chest Press: While lying on back on a bench or the floor, weight in each hand (no more than 10 pounds), hands on sides of chest, inner wrists facing each other, extend one arm straight up. While bringing it back down, extend other arm straight up so they pass each other. start with one set of 10 repetitions, five or six days a week. Work up to two to three sets of 10 reps, two to three times a week. Slow-Motion Running: Jump forward onto a single foot. stop, with knees slightly bent. Hold for three seconds and jump forward on other foot, repeating same slow action. start with one set of 10 repetitions, five or six days a week. Work up to two to three sets of 10 reps, two to three times a week. Prone Elbow Plank: this strengthens abs for maintaining good biking posture. Lie facedown with your forearms and bottoms of toes on floor, elbows directly under shoulders. supporting yourself on forearms and bent toes, lift your body, keeping your torso straight. Hold for 30 seconds. to add intensity, in same position, do alternate foot lifts, raising one foot at a time five inches off the ground and holding for a count of five. Do three reps of five-second holds on each side. Step Downs: standing with both feet on an aerobic step or the bottom riser of stairs, step backward with right foot into a lunge position, landing on heel on the floor and keeping left foot flat on the step. Use right leg to push off and come back to standing position with both feet on the step. Repeat with left foot. to add intensity, do step downs while holding three- or five-pound weights with hands at shoulders. start with one set of 10 reps on each leg, five to six days a week. Work up to two to three sets of 10 reps, two to three times a week.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2007.