When your over-60 body stops rebounding like it used to
I often think back to my 20s, 30s, and even 40s, when the only thing that prevented me from exercising was a lack of motivation. For years, I ran four or five times per week. I didn’t run marathon distances; just far enough to stay in shape.
Stretching? Hardly ever did it. Cool down after a run? Never. My routine was to step out my front door and hit the road. Amazingly, I rarely got injured.
But now I’m past 60, and when it comes to exercise, I’ve learned that 60 is definitely not the new 40. The injuries have piled up like cordwood. Tendonitis in my foot. A sore back. A stiff hamstring. And sometimes, legs that are so heavy that I feel like I’m wearing cement shoes. It seems that every time I’m back on a steady exercise schedule a nagging injury forces me to shut it down for three or four days, sometimes longer.
So, how does one continue to exercise and avoid those nagging injuries after turning 60, when the body seems to always be shouting “Stop!”
For help, I turned to a pair of experts, Cape Cod Healthcare physical therapists Kathleen Weisblatt and Nancy Boland.
“People have a routine that has worked for them for a long time, but if they’re starting to get injured then it’s time to ask the question of what they need to change,” Weisblatt said. “If you’re in your 60s and thinking you’re going to work out with the same intensity that you did in high school or college, well, most people don’t have the genetic makeup to do that. They need to make the shift where they say, ‘Am I looking to be healthy and fit?’ That’s a better focus, rather than working out as hard as they can and then getting injured all the time.”
Flexibility is a key factor in avoiding injuries, especially as people age. And that means embarking on a stretching program that builds core strength and improves upper body flexibility in the head, neck, shoulders and upper back.
“When you age, you lose your range of motion, and your muscle and bone mass,” Boland said. “It’s important to do lots of gentle stretching. Staying flexible as you get older is really the key to eliminating those minor injuries.”
It Pays Off
Those who stay strong and flexible have a higher functional level and greater day-to-day satisfaction than those who are sedentary, according to Weisblatt.
“Sometimes, life takes over and we sit at our desks or in our cars, and we don’t realize the inflexibility that develops,” she said. “Developing a nice stretching program that works the hips, spine and shoulders is important.”
Weisblatt recommends taking a yoga class to develop greater flexibility, but cautions not to embark on it too intensely at the outset.
“Introduce yourself to the instructor and let them know that you might not be able to maintain the same pace as others and also about any chronic issues you have so they can offer modifications to the exercise,” she said.
One of the great debates is when to exercise through those bothersome aches and pains and when to back off. A good rule of thumb is to keep going if the pain isn’t worsening. she said. “But if it stays with you for a week, it’s probably time to change what you’re doing.”
For regular runners, Weisblatt suggests a stationary or outdoor bike, the elliptical machine, the stair-climber or swimming, which all reduce pounding on the joints.
“With general aches and pains, it’s important to keep moving,” added Boland.
Yet, it’s also OK to take a day or two off when soreness sets in.
“Your muscles need a chance to regenerate, and your body needs time to rest and recuperate,” she said. “And when you go to the gym, you don’t need to work out every day for one hour. As we get older, we think ‘I just can’t do it for an hour today. I just can’t go,’ so it gets put off. But even 10 or 15 minutes of exercise is better than nothing. Keep things simple and find something that fits into your lifestyle.”