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Don’t Slow Down. Keep Playing Hard

Don’t Slow Down. Keep Playing Hard
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In an article in the January 2014 issue of The New Yorker, David Remnick wrote, “One morning while playing basketball at FBI headquarters, Obama went up for a rebound and came down empty-handed; he got, instead, the sort of humbling reserved for middle-aged men who stubbornly refuse the transition to the elliptical machine and Gentle Healing Yoga.”

“The president was only 52 years old!” says Cathleen London, an MD in family practice in New York City.  “Plus, if you read on you learn the humbling was a bang on the lip, a routine part of the game that has nothing to do with age.”

Dr. London started competing in triathlons when she was 45.  “Now, at 51, I’m doing my first marathon. My plan is to be in the best shape of my life for my 52nd birthday this summer.” She is taking on hillier and longer races, courses that she knows will be more challenging for her.

While Mr. Remnick and others help perpetuate the zeitgeist that hitting the body hard with lots of high intensity exercise is only for the young, many of us aren’t listening. According to New York Road Runners, 12,000 entrants in last year’s ING NYC Marathon were between the ages of 50 and 94. That’s a lot of stubborn old folk.

“Of the 200 people I trained for that event, 25 percent were over 40 and 10 percent were over 50,” says Jonathan Cane, an exercise physiologist and co-founder of City Coach Multisport in New York City.  “Some of my toughest and most successful runners and triathletes are older.”

Athletes of a certain age aren’t only runners.  According to the latest figures from the National Sporting Goods Association, participation in skateboarding and basketball went up over 20 percent among 54- to 64 year-olds between 2003 and 2012. Mountain biking increased 100 percent and ice hockey 125 percent among that same age group. 

As a lifelong competitor, Dr. London has her share of body parts that don’t work as well as they used to. “I did a lot of impact sports growing up – ski racing, horse back riding – lots of being tossed around and ended up with knee and shoulder injuries and surgeries, and now I have arthritis in my neck.  But as long as I keep my muscles strong, none of that bothers me.”

At 65, Don Healy from Greenwich Village hardly felt past his prime when he decided to climb Mount Everest. But soon after he began training, he fell off his bike and broke his hip. (Rather than feeling humbled by the accident, it only made him more determined.) After hip replacement surgery in October, 2007 he was back in training that January.  “Setbacks are a part of life but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be limited by them. They shouldn’t become excuses for older people to take it easy,” says Healy. On May 24, 2010, after a two-month expedition that ended in a final eight-hour trek in a blinding snowstorm, he reached the Mount Everest summit.

Dr. London and Healy don’t treat their injuries any differently now than when they were in high school. “When you’re younger, you get banged up and just get back out there,” says Roger Cole, PhD, and a psychobiologist in Belmar, California. “You never hear a 20 year-old say,  ‘I hurt my knee sliding into home plate. I’m never going to do that again.’ Barring serious injury, continuing to use those joints and muscles is actually what accelerates healing.”

Research shows the harder you play, the less you ache. As part of the Framingham Heart Study, 1200 subjects average age 53 took part in research examining the long-held belief that exercise contributes to arthritis, and no link was found.  Instead, they discovered the opposite after examining an MRI of each subject’s knee. Those who performed the most vigorous weight-bearing exercise had the thickest, healthiest cartilage.  A Stanford University study followed 500 distance runners over 50 for nearly 20 years. About 7 percent of runners had mildly arthritic knees compared to none in an age-matched control group, reported The New York Times. Only 20 percent of runners experienced arthritic knees compared to 32 percent in the control group.

“I make few allowances for age when prescribing exercise,” says Cane. “There is some evidence that recovery is slower for older athletes. They can take just as much as they used to on their hard days but don’t respond as well the next day. In those cases, I’ll give them less frequent hard days but I don’t back off on the intensity on those days. I think too many coaches treat older athletes differently out of nothing more than habit or society’s assumption that aging means slowing down.”

After foot surgery on two Morton’s Neuromas five years ago, I had to switch up running for bootcamp classes and hot yoga.  Competing in the NYC Marathon has always been a dream but I wonder to Cane if the opportunity passed.  “Never. Morton’s Neuromas are far more common in women than in men and more so among those that are flat-footed and overpronators.  So age isn’t a factor. I’d train you with those considerations in mind whether you’re 20 or over 50.”

For me this is excellent news. Cane says if I wear my orthotics, and adhere to his form adaptations and training schedule of quality over volume, I should be fine. Of course, I’ll do just what he says.  And that, Cane tells me, is the only real difference between young and old. “Some younger athletes have a hard time trusting me enough to follow what I ask of them.  My older athletes take my direction instead of thinking they know best. They’re comfortable and secure and they let me do my job.”





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