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The Aging Athlete | The challenge of staying active despite backs, knees, and shoulders growing creaky. | By Mike Rosen-Molina

For more than 40 years, Jack Ball has been a triathlete, weight lifter, swimmer, cyclist, coach, and gym teacher at Berkeley’s King Middle School. The Berkeley resident now teaches senior fitness and weight room orientation at the Berkeley YMCA, where some of his students remember him as Mr. Ball from his middle school coaching days. He regularly hits the weight room and pool and goes on a long run or bike ride at least twice week.

“I’m a little overboard for someone my age,” says Ball, now 73.

Yet even Ball—a true lover of exercise—admits that he started to slow down when he hit 70.

“Volume-wise, hours of running have become minutes,” Ball says. “I weight lift for the same length of time I used to, but I use less weight. Just recently, my workout partner and I were running on Bancroft and we saw a guy just walk past us. Someone told me that when you get older, you don’t slow down, it’s just that clocks go faster. Sometimes it really seems that way.”

Ball’s experience is typical of older athletes. Some of us are lucky to be like Jack LaLanne, blessed with a combination of good genes and healthy living, and won’t slow down until we die. But most of us will eventually feel the pressures of age. While healthy diets and regular exercise have been shown to delay the negative effects of aging, even the most dedicated athletes and fitness enthusiasts still find they need to adjust their workout routines to accommodate their changing bodies.

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For some older athletes, the hardest part about aging isn’t aches and pains—that’s something expected. It’s the knowledge that they’re not going to be as strong or as fast as as they once were. Most people expect to slow down as they age, but older athletes sometimes take it more personally. Keeping a sense of humor certainly helps.

“At my age, people laugh about not being able to recover as quickly,” says Marty Beene, 51, of Alameda. Beene is an assistant cross-country and track coach at Alameda High School and a certified personal running trainer. “In my 20s, I could do three days of hard workout and be fine. Now I would need two days of easy running to recover. It’s just a fact of aging, but it’s not easy to accept that I need a little more planning. Most of us runners are pretty stubborn and don’t want to admit that.”

Every athlete gets injured occasionally while working out, and old injuries tend to flare up more as we age. In cases of injury, it’s important to avoid making the problem worse. After tearing muscles in both shoulders during weight lifting (and enduring two subsequent surgeries), Terry Joel, 63, trained around, not through it. For six months, he only had one arm available, so he worked out the rest of his body while letting his other arm rest and recover.

“People should be open-minded about how to address any injury,” Beene says. “You have to use whatever resources are available to you to get to the bottom of whatever injury you have, heal it, and then carefully map out an exercise plan to keep it at bay. This can be more challenging with older athletes simply because we take longer to heal, and we are not the most patient people.”

Many who excel at a single sport—say running—wrongly assume that just keeping up with that one sport will keep them in good shape as they age. However, while staying active can stave off some problems like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or osteoarthritis, certain faculties like balance and flexibility will still inevitably decrease with age. People need a more well-rounded fitness regimen, one that also builds up core strength and flexibility.

And some sports can grow problematic for aging athletes. An active sport that requires a lot of sudden movements and fast reactions—like tennis, for example—is a great way to stay fit as a youth, but exactly the wrong activity if you have osteoporosis. (The stress of high-impact sports can actually weaken porous bones.)

Joel, who runs Coach Terry’s East Bay Boot Camp, understands this phenomena all too well. As a young man, Joel was heavily into weight lifting.

“You can’t work one muscle and expect it to benefit another,” Joel says. “I was in the body building phase in my 30s and 40s. I looked good but lacked the flexibility; my movement was limited because I didn’t move much else besides that. You produce a very good-looking but dysfunctional muscle.”

For sure, staying in shape with regular exercise gives people far more strength and stamina than staying sedentary. Even so, there are a few areas people need to focus on more: balance, flexibility, and core strength.

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As we age, we start to lose our sense of balance—often due to the deterioration of vision or the inner ear. This puts us at risk for falls, which can be especially dangerous for older adults whose bones lose density and become more prone to breaks. Our muscles also start to lose the ability to catch us when we stumble. Muscles are made up of two kinds of tissue: slow-twitch, responsible for steady continuous movements over an extended time period, and fast-twitch, responsible for sudden bursts of energy. If we trip, fast-twitch muscles respond immediately to help us steady ourselves.

Fast-twitch muscle fibers die off at a much faster pace than slow-twitch: Humans lose 30 percent of their fast-twitch fibers between the ages of 20 and 80, as opposed to only 20 percent of slow-twitch fibers. For this reason, sprinters have a harder time maintaining their personal best performances than long-distance runners.

“You have to have that quick response reflex,” says Joel, who began working out in his 20s and never looked back. Today he teaches fitness boot camps in Walnut Creek, Concord, and Clayton. “If you trip, you need to be able to catch yourself. When you see old people shuffle, it’s because they’ve lost that fast twitch reflex.”

To maintain that reflex, many athletes turn to interval training—exercise sessions that combine repeated short bursts of speed with longer, slow recovery phases. Programs often include high-intensity calisthenics and other exercises typically found in a boot camp or sports conditioning program, followed by periods for muscle recovery.

Knee lifts and leg lifts are also good ways to increase balance, performed sometimes by leaning on a chair for support.

For adults who are moving more slowly and may need a less high-impact workout, there are chair-based programs like Silver Sneakers, a senior-oriented exercise program at various Bay Area gyms, which allows participants to work on balance by sitting or standing next to a chair.

“Anything where you can get both feet off the ground at the same time is critical,” Joel says. “Even something as simple as jump rope will have a huge impact.”

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People lose flexibility as they age due to shrinking tendons and ligaments. This problem can actually be more pronounced in older athletes, who sometimes spend years working out muscles while ignoring stretching. To combat this gradual stiffening, older athletes turn to flexing exercises like those found in yoga or Pilates.

“People who [seem] old are people who don’t move,” says Annie Appleby, 50, of Burlingame, founder of YogaForce. Appleby teaches yoga privately in Hillsborough and lectures at American Bone Health, a community health organization in Oakland. “People who are active stay young. Movement is the fountain of youth.”

As people age, they lose flexibility, which can put them at increased risk of injuring themselves during exercise. For example, older runners often find it more difficult to keep up the wide strides needed for marathons. But pairing running or other exercise with stretching moves can help them keep running longer, Appleby says.

“To keep active as you age, you need to be able to stretch to your fullest,” Appleby says. “Adding yoga gives you flexibility so you can still run.”

As muscles work, they contract and elongate. But muscles that contract under load will gradually become more resistant to fully elongating, becoming shorter and tighter. Stretching exercises can help athletes regain flexibility and hopefully avoid injury.

“I still incorporate yoga in my warmups and afterwards I always do stretching,” Jack Ball says. “I’m not as flexible as I once was, but these exercises help.”

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Many older athletes are adamant about the importance of the core. We think of most exercises as working out the arms and legs, the parts we use in lifting, running, and jumping. But the core—made up of the trunk, pelvis, and stomach and back muscles—is just as important, but easily forgotten. Strong abdominal and back muscles are essential for doing everyday tasks, keeping good posture, and preventing back injuries—especially for older adults.

For most of his life, Beene has been an avid runner, but he didn’t give much thought to strengthening his core. But several years ago, he received a rude shock when he sneezed violently—and threw out his back.

“That’s never happened before, so it was a real wakeup call. I went to a chiropractor and he put me on a regimen of flexibility exercises,” Beene says. “As you get older, a lot of body parts aren’t as strong. You wouldn’t have to worry about core or knee ligaments when you’re exercising when young. We all get older and all need to watch out.”

Exercises known as “planking” and “Superman” form the basis for his core routine.

Planking involves lying on the ground on your stomach, lifting yourself with your forearms and toes, and then holding that position for up to one and a half minutes. Beene recommends doing at least three planks per session. The Superman also involves lying on your abdomen, this time with your arms outstretched in front of you (done correctly, you will look like Superman flying through midair but on the floor). You raise one arm and the opposite leg for one and a half minutes, before alternating. The Superman is especially good for strengthening the lower back.

“When coaching, my back can get stiff,” says Beene. “I do these exercises quickly and I feel a lot better.”

Other good core exercises are available from gyms, personal trainers, and online, adds Beene.

While older athletes must learn to accept that they won’t be able to run as fast or lift as much weight, they never lose the joy of movement. Despite the challenges, most plan to continue working out and keeping fit as long as possible.

“I still compete in triathlons,” says Ball, who recently received an email from USA Triathlon, congratulating him for being in the top 10 percent of his age group and inviting him to compete nationally. “When you’re in such a small group, being in the top 10 percent also means that you’re in the bottom 10 percent, too. It’s fun because I compete in my age group; since turning 70, the number of people competing in my age group has really dwindled. Often, I’m the oldest person in a race.”

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Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and a longtime contributor to The Monthly.

 

 

Forward focus: Marty Beene, 51, swears by his regular core exercises, which he started after injuring his back while sneezing. Photo by Pat Mazzera.