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Body Maintenance Through the Ages

How Age-Appropriate Physical Fitness Can Limit the Frequency and Severity of Aches and Pains

The body is analogous to a car, in some ways. An 18 year old body is like a brand new car. All it really needs is fuel and it’s good to go. No maintenance is required, at least for those first 30,000 miles. Unfortunately, some people continue to treat their aging bodies like that new car, and then wonder why things start falling apart earlier than expected. 

Children:

For children (up to 18), variety is the key. Many of the issues that bring children to the office are due to repetitive stress on a specific joint, often related to playing the same sport year-round. The vast majority of these problems can be avoided by letting your child enjoy the “sport of the season” and giving them a break from sports for a few months annually. Some parents worry that their child may not reach their full potential if they miss some time from their primary sport. The opposite is true in my opinion. Over the years I have seen way too many baseball, tennis or soccer “prodigies” at age 10 be sidelined completely by high school due to repetitive stress injuries.

Ages 18-30:

Members of this cohort are still the “new cars” and they should enjoy their fantastic bodies while they are young. Telling a 22 year old that they should consider stretching, yoga or Pilates will largely fall on deaf ears.

Ages 30-50:

This is when the foundation is laid for the rest of your life and maintaining an active lifestyle is key to health, particularly in the weight management area. Many adults put on 2-3 pounds a year and are chagrined to see the pounds add up. Try to find some fun ways to burn calories for at least 3 hours a week.

In many ways, the 30-50 era is about preparing for a happy 70+ lifestyle. Everybody knows about saving for retirement, but we don’t think as much about saving our body. We all know someone who had great plans for their golden years that were dashed by a broken hip, shoulder or wrist. 

Flexibility, core strength and balance naturally decline as we age, so after 30, the ratio of time spent on these areas compared to cardiovascular and strength training needs to gradually increase with time. If you can’t bring yourself to do yoga or Pilates, try standing on one foot for up to a minute each day which is a great test of balance.

Bone density peaks in our mid 30s and declines from there. Bones are like muscles in that they get stronger if we stress them and weaker if we don’t. Unlike muscles, bones adapt to stress much more slowly. In general, if you are strengthening your muscles you are strengthening your bones, so muscle strength training is a great way to improve bone strength. Walking (for exercise) is a good way to improve bone strength in your hips.

Ages 50-70:

This time of life is basically an extension of the previous era with some modifications. Unless you do it on a very regular basis, it is probably a good idea to move gradually away from high-impact activities like running, basketball, soccer and skiing. From a weight training standpoint, it is best to move to higher repetition, lower weight exercises. Also, when working out, leave some in the tank for the next day; the “maturing” body needs some rest.

The most common problems I see in the office among this set are knee and back problems. Many of these are natural consequences of wear and tear, but often they can be avoided or mitigated with the right maintenance. It is not uncommon for me to see someone who has knee pain that is interfering with their activities of daily living, yet they have had no known recent injury and normal X-rays. Usually it is because their flexibility, particularly in their quadriceps (muscles on the front of the thigh), have gotten tight over time. A simple stretching routine for a few minutes a day usually solves that problem. Weight is also a factor. Losing only a few pounds can dramatically alleviate aching knees.

The top three modifiable factors in back pain are, again, core strength, flexibility and weight. The “core” refers to the deep muscles between the ribs and the pelvis that stabilize the lower back. If you are not actively working on your core strength, it is probably weak. A couple of simple tests are sit-ups and planks. If you can’t do 15 consecutive sit-ups or hold a plank for 30 seconds, your core is weak. Doing those exercises will obviously help your core strength. Yoga, Pilates, weight lifting (specifically squats and dead lifts) are all great for core strength. 

Ages 70+:

In our golden years we can hopefully reap the rewards of the work we have put in thus far, socially, emotionally, financially and physically. If you have been maintaining your body all along, good on ya! If not, it’s never too late. From an orthopedic perspective, balance is the key. Work on it as much as you can, but also recognize that a fall that might be embarrassing at 30 can be catastrophic at 70. Keep your floor areas clear of tripping hazards and by all means stay off of ladders. 

Guest writer Dr. Owen Tabor is an Orthopedic Surgeon with OrthoSouth. He graduated with an English major from the University of Virginia.

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