Tips for the Weekend Warriors
Baby boomers may be getting older, but many are still avid, if not obsessive, exercisers. And they want to stay that way. "We're not about to be sedentary," says Marjorie Albohm, a 57-year-old athletic trainer and director of sports medicine at OrthoIndy in Indianapolis. "As we approach the aging years, we're saying, 'Hey, I want to be as fit today as I was in my 20s, and I want to be sure I'm still physically active in my 80s.'" That's an admirable goal, but it's important to do it smartly. Here's how:
Be realistic. Face it: You can't do exactly what you did when you were 25. Says Havertown, Pa.-based orthopedic surgeon Nicholas DiNubile: "I don't mind people exploring and extending their limits, but when there are indeed limits, you need to respect them."
Still, push yourself. With the right precautions, your performance can even improve well into middle age. "If you want to run a few miles at eight or nine minutes a mile, most of the population has the potential to do that into their 60s," says Edward Coyle, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas-Austin. And in sports that require technique, like swimming and rowing, it can take years for amateur athletes to develop moves that work best for them. So someone who starts in her 30s may not hit her stride until she's 50.
Cross-train. "You can't do weight-bearing activities the whole time," says Albohm. Mix things up. If you've always been a runner but your knees can no longer stand your old five-day-a-week routine, ride a bike or hop in the pool every other day instead.
If you're not lifting weights, start. "Around 40 or 45, we can see a decrease of as much as a pound of muscle per year," says Joseph Scott, an athletic trainer with the Sports Performance and Orthopedic Rehab Team at the Southcoast Hospitals Group in North Dartmouth, Mass. Moreover, bone density drops. Weights can help.
Rest. Recovery is key, says Kathy Zawadzki, who coaches cyclists and triathletes for Carmichael Training Systems, an online coaching company. She may give her older athletes 15 or 20 minutes in between hard sets, compared with 10 minutes for younger folks. And she builds in an extra rest day during the week to allow athletes more time to bounce back between big workouts. Rest is even more important if you've got a nagging injury. "When you're 20, you can rest and ice, take anti-inflammatories, and it will go away. When you're 50 or 60 or 70, those same problems can be debilitating," says Scott.
Watch your diet. Your metabolism slows as you get older. Zawadzki, who's a sports nutritionist as well as a coach, advises her athletes to be vigilant about what they eat when they're not training but fuel up properly immediately before, during, and after a tough workout.
Get good advice. It may be worth finding an athletic trainer or another fitness pro with experience dealing with older athletes to help tinker with your program. That's especially true if you've had a chronic injury. "You've got to be cautious about what you do to a body part that's already been compromised," says Albohm.
Expand your definition of athletic success. Some of the middle-aged cyclists and triathletes coached by Zawadzki are no longer achieving personal best times, she says, but "at 50, there aren't as many competitors." Besides having a better chance at picking up a medal, her athletes enjoy the community of other athletes or the novelty of competing at different distances.
This story appears in the June 25, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.