For athletes, aging can be a pain

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 3, 2012 - 6:20 PM

Keeping fit after 50 doesn't have to hurt, but you need to exercise extra diligence in your workout routine, putting more emphasis on stretching, form and strengthening muscles.

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Jill Lile, 54, was a dancer until she injured her toes. She still dances but has adjusted her technique. Dick Anderson, 62, (holding skis) was an avid rock climber until he blew out both shoulders. While he no longer can climb, he has discovered that he can cross-country ski and kayak. Rick Goullaud, 67, (holding wheel) remains an avid triathlete after coming back from a broken foot.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Dick Anderson reached the pinnacle of his rock-climbing endeavors -- literally as well as figuratively -- 10 years ago when, after 3 1/2 exhausting days of clinging to the side of a sheer cliff, he reached the top of El Capitan, a majestic granite monolith in Yosemite Park that rises nearly three-fourths of a mile straight up.

Shortly after finishing that climb, Anderson, then 52, dislocated his right shoulder. Two years later, while trying to come back from surgery on that shoulder, he blew out the left one. The Minneapolis man's climbing days were over, and the prospect of being relegated to an overstuffed chair in front of a TV pained him as much as his injured shoulders.

"I found that I needed to be active to feel complete as a person," he said.

But he also found that being active on the other side of 50 often involves embracing new approaches and techniques. And if you're a lifelong athlete, it can mean coming to grips with the fact that you're not going to be able to run as fast, hit a golf ball as far or climb rock walls the way you once did. Maintaining fitness as we age takes extra diligence, including more emphasis on stretching, monitoring hydration, focusing on form and strengthening core muscles. Yes, these are the same things we were told to do in our 20s and 30s, but now the trainers really mean it. A 50-year-old body isn't nearly as forgiving about us ignoring these things as a 20-something body.

Anderson decided to appreciate what he still could do rather than mourn the loss of what he couldn't.

"I'm so thrilled to be able to do what I'm doing at my age that I just let [the disappointment] go," he said. "For some reason, my shoulders are OK with the motion for cross-country skiing and kayaking, so I do a lot of that."

Keeping physically fit as we age isn't a pipe dream. A study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and published in January in the professional journal Physician and Sportsmedicine found that loss of muscle mass isn't an inevitable byproduct of aging. "This study contradicts the common observation that muscle mass and strength decline as a function of aging alone," it says, putting the blame on inactivity.

But just keeping active isn't enough either, experts say. The key is keeping active in ways that help your body handle the activity. Mia Bremer, fitness manager at the retirement community Friendship Village of Bloomington, has seen this from both perspectives.

"We have clients in their 70s who wouldn't be having [physical] problems now" if they had done what they were supposed to when they were in their 50s, she said. And at the same time, "We have clients in their 80s who did it right and are in excellent shape."

Jill Lile was teaching dance at Creighton University when she was sidelined by a toe injury that often afflicts ballet dancers. She not only was forced to redefine her dancing -- "I started perfecting my flat-foot technique," she said -- but she segued into a new career as a chiropractor.

"I could see the writing on the wall" as far as dancing, said Lile, 54. "I wanted to keep exercising because I like the way I feel when I exercise. I like the benefits of exercising, and I wasn't ready to pack it up. I realized that there was so much else available. There's yoga and Pilates and Zumba."

There's even still dance, including teaching classes at Minnesota Dance Theatre. It's just not at the same intensity.

"After I got surgery on my foot, I tried to work with it the best I could," she said. "I can do ballet flat-footed. I just can't do it all the way. I've modified it as best I could. I can still get out and move to the music."

Lile combines her injury experience with her technical knowledge as a chiropractor, although not all of her clients at the Hippocrates Center for Holistic Healing in Minneapolis like what she has to tell them.

"A lot of runners are like dancers -- when they get hurt, you can't get them to stop," she said. "You have to know when to stay down. A lot of injuries become a test of patience."

Back too soon

Returning to action too soon after an injury has become so common that there's even a term for it now, said Mark Richards, vice president of program development for the Edina-based Welcyon Fitness After 50 clubs.

"It's called incomplete rehabilitation syndrome," he said. If you injure, say, a knee, use the other knee to establish "a baseline physiological status," he said, and don't return to action until the injured joint has the same strength and range of motion as the healthy one. Otherwise, "you're an injury waiting to happen," he warned.

Rick Goullaud knows how hard it can be force yourself to abstain. When he broke his foot in October, the pain was worsened by the disappointment of it happening the weekend before he was going to compete in a triathlon for which he'd spent months training.

"It was hard to stop training when you'd been looking forward to something that long," said Goullaud, 67, of Plymouth. "There were 10 of us who train together who were going to Las Vegas for the Monster Dash triathlon. We work pretty hard when we train, so it was disappointing. But I'm back at it now. I train at least five days a week, sometimes seven."

The triathlon's format forces him to cross-train, rotating among biking, swimming and running. Experts say that mixing activities is a key to exercising as we age. One of the main causes of repetitive stress injuries -- as the name indicates -- is repetition.

"Keep your body guessing," said Sarah Hankel, a personal trainer at the Lifetime Fitness club in St. Louis Park. "Stop running every day and bike some days. Or swim. Take yoga. There are lots of alternatives. Injuries tend to occur when monotony sets in."

The important thing, everyone agreed, is to not give up.

"There's no age limit" at which a body quits responding to exercise, Richards said. "When it comes to a wide range of health issues, exercise is the magic bullet. It's that powerful with respect to its benefits. If exercise were a pill, everyone would take it."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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