Athletes over the age of 40 will tell you their recovery time from aches and injuries is not what it used to be. I’m still in my 30s, and I’ve already noticed a dramatic change in the way my body responds to certain yoga postures. I’m sure I’m not the only one frustrated with the physical changes I’m experiencing. Why can’t my body keep up with the physical demands I place on it?
Our younger bodies seemed invincible, but our older ones just can’t seem to keep up. No matter what your physical disposition, your body unavoidably becomes more susceptible to age-related injuries over the course of time. Instead of fighting the changes and putting ourselves at risk, we must adapt and focus on injury-prevention exercises, injury-prevention stretches and understanding what our body needs to recover.
What Leads to Age-Related Injury?
There are four key components to age-related injuries, whether you are an off-the-couch athlete or professional. Whatever your fitness routine may be, there is no escaping these progressive physiological changes:
The human body has two types of muscles, I and II. As we age, we naturally start to lose type II muscles, no matter how much we work out. They contract quickly and are vital to maintaining strength and power. Although we can still build type I muscles as we age, our type II fibers decline naturally.
Another noticeable change is a decline in heart rate. Younger athletes normally have a higher cardiac output during physical activity, meaning their heart pumps more blood through the circulatory system than the hearts of their older peers. In our younger selves, the size of our heart chambers increases in response to activity, but that stretching ability declines as we age.
If you’ve ever noticed that older folks tend to have issues with balance, it is not just happenstance. It’s inherent to aging, linked to an overall decline in a fully functional nervous system. As we age, our response times slow and it gets much more difficult to make the miniscule mental adjustments needed to maintain overall balance. The decline in communication between our muscles and our brains is marked by a decrease in blood flowing between the two.
Finally, our overall lung capacity also declines with age. It becomes increasingly difficult to get the appropriate amount of oxygen into the bloodstream, even during rest periods. Exercise becomes increasingly restricted by that reduced lung capacity
Many physiological changes come into play as we age. Although maintaining an active lifestyle is crucial for slowing the aging process and for injury prevention, sooner or later we can expect to notice changes in the way our body reacts and recovers to physical activity.
Many beneficial injury-prevention exercises and stretches can help reduce the risk of age-related injury. What part of your body are you trying to strengthen? What activity are you doing? Swimming, golfing, running and even yoga have unique sets of recommended injury-prevention poses, but here is a set of three simple stretches that can help reduce the risk of injury, no matter the activity:
Many of the exercises on our list are centered on maintaining range of motion. Shoulder Reaches is one. One arm at a time, hold one straight across the chest and use the other arm to extend the stretch gently. Hold for 30 seconds or longer before switching arms.
Sciatic Nerve Stretches
Sciatic nerve and lower back pain is a common age-related injury, often related to a tightening of the muscles in the butt. To stretch the sciatic nerve gently, sit with your legs straight out in front of you. Bend the right knee to start, placing your right foot on the outside of the left knee. Turn your upper body toward the left, using either arm to deepen the stretch if possible. Repeat on the other side.
To prevent neck injury, no matter what sport you are warming up for, take the time to stretch out your neck muscles properly. Tuck your chin and tilt your head to one side. If you need a slightly deeper stretch, place your hand on top of your forehead and allow it to weigh down the chin tuck even farther.
There is much more to injury-prevention than just a series of exercises, although the stretches do play a very important part. Monitoring a few key physiological indicators is a crucial way to determine if your body has recovered fully from its last workout and if it can handle another. Take these three injury-prevention tips into consideration before your next big workout.
Monitor Heart Rate
Monitoring your heart rate properly can tell you much more about your body’s readiness for physical activity than you ever thought possible. It’s an exact science. Take a baseline heart rate after you’ve just awakened, and continue checking in for the next few days.
Once a baseline is achieved, take a series of heart-rate measurements throughout the day over the course of a few weeks. Keep a journal of your findings and soon you’ll notice a trend. It will be important for determining just how much stress your body is under at any given time. The higher the baseline stress level, the more difficult it is for your body to recover.
Even for daily runners who think they do not need grip strength, it’s an important indicator of recovery. Get a dynamometer (grip-strength measurement tool) and take a baseline measurement before working out on what you would consider a good day. A stronger grip could be a powerful tool for determining just how serious your next workout should be. If your grip is substantially weaker, it may be a signal that you need more recovery time.
Track Your Sleep
Sleep equals recovery time, so an essential injury-prevention practice is to track sleep time. Tracking sleep also is intimately tied to heart rate, so it is incredibly beneficial to track them together. In fact, if you determine you are getting enough quality sleep, but your heart rate indicates stress, it could be a sign your level of activity is too intense for your body to handle safely.
There is no avoiding the increased risk of injury we face as we age. But, with a few careful adjustments to our regular exercise routines, incorporating some injury-prevention exercises and exploring data presented by following the injury-prevention tips, it’s possible to continue physical activity well into old age. Plus, proper exercise might even delay the signs of aging. There is no reason to slow down; we just have to pay more attention to what our body tells us as we age gracefully.
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