Ask the Bridge
My middle-aged friends and I have always been physically fit, but lately many of us have been sidelined with knee and ankle injuries. What can we do to stay active but avoid injuries?
“You're not alone among baby boomers,” says Thomas Einhorn, a MED professor and chairman of the department of orthopedic surgery. “People are living longer, staying healthier later in life, and engaging in a lot more physical exercise than ever before,” he says. “But because their musculoskeletal tissues are aging, boomers are more susceptible to injury, both acute and chronic.”
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons has coined the term boomeritis to describe the growing number of sports-related injuries among middle-aged athletes. “Boomeritis is what I'd consider to be a mild negative consequence of a very good thing, which is staying physically fit,” says Einhorn. “I'd much rather have my heart in great shape and my cholesterol level low and every once in a while have to do some physical therapy or take an anti-inflammatory drug for a couple of days because I overdid it running or swimming or lifting weights.”
The problem, he says, is that no matter how fit your heart is, the rest of your body has certain limitations. “You'll see a group of 50-year-olds in a basketball league,” he says, “and one of them will go up for a jump shot and rupture his patella tendon or his Achilles tendon, because no matter how well your cardiovascular system is conditioned, the musculoskeletal tissues are not prepared to withstand the loads you're applying to them. It's very common. We see these kinds of injuries in our office on a regular basis.”
The people among active baby boomers most likely to develop symptoms of boomeritis often fit a certain personality profile. “I don't have any scientific evidence to back this up,” Einhorn says, “but it seems to me that the most susceptible patient is what psychiatrists would call a type A personality: the high-strung perfectionist who wants to go out there and do it. They're very motivated people. They think that more is better, and they'll find out that they didn't build themselves up to it slowly enough, didn't stretch properly. They'll come into my office and want to know why they can't move their leg. They've got a rip-roaring tendonitis that's now going to take two months in physical therapy and a whole lot of anti-inflammatory drugs to get better. It would have been better if they'd just eased into it.
“Physical exercise is a good thing: it benefits your cardiovascular health and your mental health, and there's even some suggestion it may prevent or delay some types of cancer. Boomeritis injuries are largely preventable, but on some level, are almost inevitable. You can do a lot to prevent the vast majority of them by building up your exercise regimen slowly, stretching before and after exercise, and listening to your body. When you feel you're overdoing it, if you're sore on the side of your leg, don't see if you can run through it or grin and bear the pain. Be sensible. Back off.
“I also recommend cross-training. When I started swimming and running on a regular basis, I stopped having running injuries. It's when you do an activity on a regular basis, and the injury you created today doesn't have a chance to repair by tomorrow, that's when you get chronic injuries. I would recommend that anybody who engages in an aerobic exercise try to have two aerobic exercises, something where you use different muscle groups, and it would be best if you alternate between upper extremities and lower extremities, so you really give things a chance to rest. You will regularly challenge your cardiovascular system, you'll overstress things much less, and if you do get injured, you'll still have an outlet.”
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