March 13, 2013 at 9:35 AM ET
CrossFit. Warrior dashes. Insanity challenges. Extreme workouts are definitely the hot new trend in fitness these days.
But those pulse-pounding pursuits might be too much for men of a certain age.
Chuck Herman, a 40-year-old gym rat from Cleveland, has had four surgeries to repair his elbows, right shoulder and right knee – all damaged by years of amateur sports and perhaps too much sweat equity in the weight room.
But his barking joints and bandaged elbows weren’t enough to keep him away from a Cleveland Indians fantasy camp last year where, on the mound, he faced ex-Indians outfielder Rick Manning. Herman says his surgically mended right elbow throbbed beneath a full wrap and therapeutic bands ringed his forearms.
"I looked like I'd just walked out of surgery,” he says. “I was on a painkiller. But this was once in a lifetime, and he was my only batter. I'd thrown him four pitches. Before that fifth pitch, I said to myself, 'If I don't get him here, I can't throw another.' "
Fortunately, Manning slapped a groundball to the first basemen who flipped to Herman, who tagged the bag then had Manning autograph the ball. These days, Herman says his "knuckleheaded" athletic antics are history: "If I'm hurt, I do have the willpower to say, 'I'm not going to do it today.’”
Scores of guys 40 and beyond are stubbornly sticking to hardcore exercise regimens and grueling, distance events that they manhandled at 25. And, like Herman, some are getting injured -- or far worse. A 46-year-old man died from an apparent heart attackrecently while swimming in San Francisco Bay during a triathlon, the most recent casualty from this ever-increasingly popular and challenging sport.
Dr. Michael F. Bergeron, executive director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute, says ultra-rugged "Tough Mudder" runs are a gritty fitness hit attracting some middle-aged men. Other graying guys are leaping into extreme conditioning programs like P90X, Gym Jones, and Insanity.
"If you are able to survive them, without question, they will elevate your fitness," says Bergeron.
"I don't want to just slam anything. There are a lot of positive aspects to any kind of conditioning program. Those must be acknowledged," he says. "But if you go at it too fast, do too much, too soon, too often, it's not a matter of if you get hurt, it's a question of when."
Typically, such high-intensity routines preach maximal effort with brief rests between intervals. But as some people wear down, their exercise form deteriorates, leaving them vulnerable to injuries, Bergeron says. And before launching any rigorous, DVD-based programs or strenuous group endeavors like marathons or triathlons, older guys should spend years, not weeks, ramping up their fitness levels.
"The reality is there are people who die from this," he says. "If you break down muscle to the extreme -- and that can come from pushups or from lifting bulldozer tires -- some of those proteins that reside in the muscles get into the blood and get into the kidneys. That can cause kidney failure and heart arrhythmias. So if you get into a demanding program and you're doing too much and you're not ready for that, you're rolling the dice on a dangerous situation."
There are low-risk ways to tackle an extreme workout once you’re out of your thirties.
Dr. Mark Schickendantz, an orthopedic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Center says after 40, male fitness buffs -- or guys simply seeking to slice pounds and add years -- should consider crafting and following smart, individualized plans that are long on recovery and variety, mixing yoga or tai chi with cardio and strength training.
Ditch your 90-minute weight-room grinds for shorter sessions. Don't stress muscles to the point of failure. And protect your shoulders by using dumbbells versus straight bars, he advises.
"We shouldn't work out with the same ferocity as we did when we're 25," says Schickendantz. "You don't want to be the biggest guy in the gym any more. You want to be the oldest guy in the gym."