Commonsense Tips for Preventing Injuries in Aging Athletes
An active, athletic lifestyle is becoming the norm for older adults. In addition to enhancing muscle and joint function, physical exercise is shown to decrease the risk of developing health problems such as osteoporosis, stroke and heart disease.
But even though older adults are increasingly active, they still experience the physical changes in balance, flexibility and strength that come with age. These changes can make them more susceptible to common sports injuries. Despite this, taking some simple precautions can make it possible for older adults to enjoy an active lifestyle safely.
What physical changes occur as you age?
Older adults should be mindful of physical changes that can increase their risk of common sports injuries. This includes:
- Loss of muscle mass, which results in decreased strength
- Loss of elasticity in tendons and ligaments, which reduces flexibility and range of motion
- Loss of bone mass, which increases the risk of fractures
- Reduced heart, lung and nervous system function, which affects athletic performance
- Loss of cartilage, which results in less cushioning in the joints
- Deterioration of balance, which can increase the risk of accidental falls
What activities present a high risk of injury for aging athletes?
Your risk of sports-related injury depends on the activity itself and your physical condition.
- Contact sports present a higher risk of broken bones due to the likelihood of falls and collisions.
- Activities like tennis, softball, baseball and golf increase the risk of soft tissue shoulder injuries such as rotator cuff or labral tears.
- Runners have an increased risk of suffering from knee or ankle conditions.
Your level and frequency of participation also can affect your risk of injury. For example, recreational athletes who only participate in an activity a couple of times per week are less likely to have a sports injury than competitive athletes who have a rigorous training schedule.
How can aging athletes prevent common sports injuries?
The most important thing you can do to prevent sports injuries as you get older is to ensure you’re physically prepared for your chosen activity. To do this, engage in a consistent, balanced exercise program. It’s best to aim for 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each day instead of packing all your physical activity into one or two days a week.
Select activities that include cardiovascular exercise (running, walking, cycling), strength training and balance/flexibility exercises. Pay close attention to how you’re feeling while performing each activity and adjust your routine if needed.
Strength training is a great way to improve your physical conditioning, while yoga helps increase your flexibility. Studies have shown that regular participation in tai chi helps improve balance and decreases the risk of falls in older people. And having good core strength as a result of these activities also improves overall stability.
You also can reduce your injury risk by wearing well-fitting, supportive footwear and performing activities with proper form and technique. And, make sure you get adequate rest between exercise sessions to prevent over exercising.
Warming up and cooling down
Research has shown that cold muscles are more prone to injury, so you should always complete a proper warm up before engaging in physical activity. Doing 5 to 10 minutes of light aerobic activity, such as jumping jacks, cycling or running/walking in place, followed by a few minutes of stretching will prepare your body for exercise.
After exercise, take a few minutes to allow your body to cool down. Gentle stretching for 5 to 10 minutes after exercise helps make your recovery easier. It’s also important to replenish your body by drinking plenty of water during and after exercise, and having a snack after you complete your workout.
How can aging athletes tell if their injuries require medical attention?
Although some sports injuries heal with rest and home care, other injuries require professional treatment. If you think you have a broken bone—or if you experience severe pain, swelling or bruising—you should see your doctor.
If your symptoms don’t improve within a few days of the injury, it’s a good idea to get medical help. The specialists at Virtua Sports Medicine offer a range of treatments to get you back in the game, including physical therapy, pain management and surgery if needed.
Updated July 10, 2017