Many of us face this dilemma. How to balance hectic working hours, little kids who demand a lot of our time and our wanting to exercise, continue to play sports and stay fit into our thirties and beyond. One popular solution is to cram all sporting activity into the weekend. While this may seem like the obvious choice, it is associated with a large unanticipated risk of minor or major injuries.
The first step in prevention is to understand why these injuries occur. The main trigger for this problem is the sudden transition from little or no activity to intense bouts of the same. While a teenage body can easily cope with this and repair the microdamage sustained, older people often suffer from injuries if this pattern continues beyond the body’s ability to heal itself. This can be easily prevented with a bit of care and knowledge. Muscles (and to some extent, ligaments and tendons) need proper conditioning to work at their peak efficiency. Most sports put a surprisingly high amount of load on particular muscle groups which push the limits of tolerance of the unconditioned muscle, risking injury. Even non-sporting activities like gardening or a major cleaning if concentrated in a short period of time can cause injury, so it's not just the fitness conscious who have to watch out.
The common minor injuries sustained by the so-called “weekend warriors” are muscle strains such as:
- Hamstring and groin pulls
- Ligament injuries particularly ankle sprains
- Tendinitis of the tendoachilles, tibialis posterior and elsewhere
- Shin splints
- Rotator cuff tendinopathy of the shoulder
- Low back pain
Some suffer from major issues like ACL tears, patellofemoral pain syndrome, rotator cuff tears and degenerative tennis elbow. This spectrum is non-exhaustive and most injuries that a professional athlete would sustain can inflict a casual sports person with a relatively minor impact. Some of these are non-traumatic and occur only due to repetitive stress.
Now how will you handle this catch-22 situation? Give up on your fitness goals? Recurrent injuries have forced a lot of 30+ men into couch potatoes with queries like “I used to be a top sportsman in college. What has happened to my knees in the past 5 years?” The answer lies in your ability to understand and listen to your body, be smart and prevent injuries without compromising on your fitness.
The first mantra is to exercise more regularly. Try and fit in some sort of activity on weekdays, especially midweek. It could be something as simple as some gentle stretches, yoga or a brisk walk. Cycle to work or go for a swim.
In addition to this, a few other precautions will greatly reduce the risk of injury:
- Build up activity slowly. If you are returning from an extended maternity break or after a long project that has kept you busy for months on end, it is all the more imperative to give your body time to adjust to the increased demands. If your office colleagues have convinced you to join them for a half-marathon, start the preparation for the same months in advance and increase your exercise time and intensity gradually every week or even slower.
- Proper warm up. Moderately paced activity like jogging will get the blood flowing in your muscles.
- Stretches. After a short period of light exercise, get your muscles ready for the more vigorous activity ahead with proper stretches. All major muscle groups should be stretched with a particular focus on hamstrings and quadriceps. Similarly, stretching after the game has clear benefits in decreasing muscle soreness and helping muscle recover.
- Use proper technique and equipment. While this is applicable to those working out in a gym, a corollary is to avoid a game like football with novice friends who would tackle you straight to the emergency room! All safety equipment like helmets and paddings work. Use them without embarrassment.
- Find an exercise programme and set realistic goals for yourself. You can always set higher standards as your fitness improves. “Cycling never gets easier. You just get faster!”.
- Don’t push through the serious pain. Listen to your body. Your health is more precious to you than the target your trainer has set for you or the scoreline for that matter.
- Change the game. Why not play table tennis instead of football? Why don’t you try cycling instead of marathon running until you feel ready?
- Roll with it. Learn how to fall (or tumble) without hurting yourself. While it comes easily to a teenager, a middle-aged fellow who hasn’t played in a while can easily tear his ACL with an apparently trivial hyperextension of the knee while landing straight from a jump.
- Improve your balance. There is a thin line between a minor wobble and a major fracture while skateboarding. Make sure your reflexes and balance are razor sharp by non-structured exercises, drills, skipping, balancing boards and whatnot.
- Stay off alcohol. Football after a few drinks with the buddies is a recipe for disaster.
- Diet. An integral part of staying fit, in itself can consume pages and pages. In short, don’t deny your muscles of its requirements of protein, vitamins and minerals to stay healthy.
So, there you have it. A simple recipe to keep your body healthy and fit into old age without compromising too much on your work and other responsibilities. It is your body and it is you who has to make it last your entire life.