Whether you’re new to exercise or a seasoned fitness fanatic, body changes after 50 can make some moves challenging and even painful.
That’s because bone structure and function changes as we age, says Doreen Stiskal, chair of the department of physical therapy at Seton Hall University. “Muscles aren’t as strong or as fast. Joints lose flexibility, making activities more difficult,” she says.
Fortunately, simple modifications enable you to continue to participate or even increase comfort during your favorite workouts and activities. Working with a physical therapist or a qualified personal trainer can help pinpoint your specific problem areas.
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Here, experts discuss ways to stay active with simple modifications to help you stay pain-free.
If You Love: Swimming
If you’re an avid swimmer, you may find overhead strokes painful. “Overhead movements often lead to shoulder impingement, a catch-all term that refers to the ‘pinching’ of structures in the shoulder,” says Brian Durbin, co-owner of Fitness Together in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.
Ways to keep going: Modify your stroke. “Try the breast stroke rather than freestyle,” says Durbin. “The motion of the arm in front of the body rather than overhead and in full extension can reduce shoulder pain.”
In addition, include rotator cuff exercises in your strength training routine and be sure to stretch shoulders after every swim session to help restore joint balance.
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If You Love: Golf
The golf swing often presents problems in the muscles of the outer and back of the hips, along the upper spine and abdominals. “In addition, the muscles in the shoulders and hips tend to tighten and shorten from poor posture and increased sitting time,” says Durbin. These changes result in poor mechanics during a golf swing and a higher injury potential for the spine, shoulders and neck.
Ways to keep going: We can’t manipulate much of the golf swing, but proper golf fitness can help you keep playing, says Scott Weiss, a New York physical therapist and athletic trainer. This includes three main things:
- Proper and regular stretching help to prevent many injuries that can develop from golf. Stick to stretching of hip flexors (lunge), spinal rotators (standing twist) and hip rotators (z-sit).
- Tone down your swing. Maintain 70 percent of your full power and don’t try to swing so hard. “Swinging too hard fatigues your muscles and forces you to modify your swing,” Weiss says.
- Strengthen your core. That can help make your golf game last into the later years of life. “Try performing plank exercises, windshield wipers and low back extensions,” says Weiss.
If You Love: Running
As we age, fluid in knee joints diminishes over time, causing stiffness. “Plus, the impact of running can speed up the process of degrading the joint space or tearing cartilage,” says Weiss. The result: knee pain.
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Ways to keep going: Check out the architecture of your feet by going to a physical therapist or podiatrist, who may recommend orthotics (a corrective foot pad or heel insert), Weiss recommends.
Changing your running terrain from cement to a softer surface can also help. Try running on a track, grass or dirt path, which will be much more absorbent than the street or pavement. Treadmills also possess greater shock absorption, which eases and prevents age-related knee and joint pain.
If You Love: Yoga
Balance, limited flexibility and strength may be challenges for yoga lovers, says Beth Shaw, founder of YogaFit and leader in mind body fitness education.
Holding poses for the normal recommended times (20 to 60 seconds and longer) may also be difficult. “In general, poses should be done in a slower, more gentle fashion,” says Shaw, who recommends beginners start with simple lying down poses and gradually move on to more advanced ones such as leg stretches, hip openers and twists.
Ways to keep going: If lack of strength is an issue, Shaw recommends cutting all pose time in half.
“As you get more yoga experience, you can increase the holds by 5 or 10 seconds,” she says. “For balance challenges, I always tell my students to gaze at a certain spot in the room. If they keep their eyes on one spot, then they are more likely to stay balanced.”
If You Love: Weight Lifting
Resistance training helps maintain muscle mass and prevents sarcopenia — the loss of muscle with age — and also reduces the risk of osteoporosis. So keeping up with a weight lifting program as you age provides many benefits, but often requires adjustments to prevent injury or pain.
“Older athletes often complain about shoulder, low back and knee pain,” says Durbin. “Part of this may be due to reduced blood flow to muscles such as the rotator cuff (shoulder) and repetitive wear over time.”
Ways to keep going: Learning proper form is sometimes all that’s needed to continue resistance training without injury. “Baby boomers must be particularly cautious of overhead or bench-pressing movements due to rotator cuff or other tissue problems with shoulders,” says Durbin.
A modified range of motion or a variation of the exercise helps. A thorough warm-up (enough to break a light sweat — about 10 minutes) also readies joints and the nervous system for movement prior to a weight training workout.
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