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Staying in the game as sports injuries rise

With all the preachy messages urging men to get off the couch, it might be perplexing to hear that sometimes guys should take things more slowly.
playing baseball
Maybe you can't play like you did when you were a kid, but you can still play — with a few modifications.Corbis file

With all the preachy messages urging men to get off the couch (some of them, no doubt, from me), it might be perplexing to hear that sometimes guys should take things more slowly.

But that's the advice of sports medicine doctors who are seeing a spate of injuries — strains and sprains, tendonitis, slipped disks and more — among aging men who overdo it on the basketball or tennis court, softball field, gym floor, and, yes, even the golf course.

The problem isn't that men become too old to play (you're never too old to exercise), it's that many don't fully appreciate that they can't always play as hard or long as they did in their teens and 20s.

And if they are able to keep pace with the younger guys on the field, they may need to warm up for longer periods beforehand or take an extra day of rest between games, experts say.

"Your body is more vulnerable as you age," says Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania and consultant to the Philadelphia 76ers. "So things you did before, you might not be able to withstand now."

Men are more than twice as likely to sustain a sports injury as women, according to a nationwide study published in the journal Prevention two years ago. Overall, results showed, about 7 million Americans receive medical treatment or counseling for sports and recreation-related injuries each year.

And those injuries are believed to be on the rise, especially among active baby boomers. From 1991 to 1998, ER visits for sports injuries increased a third among boomers, according to data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Doctors have even coined the term "boomeritis" to describe the trend.

Weak links
In addition to the wear and tear that the joints endure with age, men often have what DiNubile calls "weak links." These could be old sports injuries, a bad back, muscle imbalances or arthritis. Pound your body too hard and you could pay for it later, he says.

But the solution isn't to avoid your favorite sports, it's to modify how you play them so that you don't irritate those weak links, says DiNubile, author of the new book "FrameWork: Your 7-Step Program for Healthy Muscles, Bones and Joints" (Rodale, 2005).

That could mean spending an extra 10 minutes warming up before a basketball game, jogging every other day instead of every day, only playing in one softball league instead of two, or even taking yoga to build your flexibility and balance.

It's essential to listen to your body, says DiNubile. "If it's telling you something, you better pay attention."

Sore muscles or an aching back the day after a hard workout? Take a break to rest up.

Men often go wrong when they spend their weeks as a desk jockey and then switch over to a weekend warrior, experts say. Cramming physical activity into a couple of days puts you at risk for overuse injuries.

Another big mistake men make is not staying in shape year-round for their sport, says Dr. Bill Roberts, past-president of the American College of Sports Medicine and an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

For example, he says, if you're a downhill skier planning to hit the slopes this holiday season but you haven't worked up a sweat in months, you're at greater risk for injury because you'll fatigue more quickly and your technique will get sloppy.

Same goes for guys who dust off the golf clubs and hit the greens without having spent a couple of months at the gym beforehand. Common injuries include lower back strains and tennis elbow, Roberts says.

Maintain your muscles
In addition to keep your cardiovascular fitness strong, it's also important to strength train, says exercise and aging expert Wayne Westcott, fitness research director at the Southshore YMCA in Quincy, Mass.

Strong muscles don't just look good, they also give you power for your sport, act as shock absorbers and help maintain balance, according to Westcott.

"As men age, they lose muscle every year," he says, about 7 pounds of it for every decade of life.

That's why weight-training is a key part of fitness with age, says Westcott.

Sports participation isn't enough to maintain that muscle, he says. But you don't need a huge time commitment either.

Just 20 minutes twice a week can go a long way, Westcott says. He recommends striving for one set of each of 10 exercises on free weights or machines that work all major muscle groups. Choose a weight that is 70 to 80 percent of your one-repetition maximum and that will fatigue your muscles in 8 to 12 repetitions.

If you have questions about how to use sports equipment at the gym, be sure to ask for help, says DiNubile. Men have a tendency to strength train the way their high-school coach taught them, which may or may not be correct, he says.

Some men also tend to focus on what DiNubile calls the "mirror muscles" — the biceps, quads and pecs that guys watch in the gym mirror as they pump iron — but neglect to work other major muscles, like those of the back, that contribute to a well-rounded physique that's less prone to injury, he says.

And if you do get injured, don't tough it out. Yes, you're not a kid anymore — so you're wise enough to know when to get help.