Seniors and Sports: How to Avoid Injuries, Boost Performance, and Improve Health

In my practice, I’m privileged to work with many active seniors who seek my help to stay in the game well into their late eighties. I’ve treated senior swimmers and skiers, octogenarian rock-climbers, and many tennis and pickleball players who are well past the age of retirement. It brings me a lot of joy to see their spiritedness, resilience, and determination—and I love working together to keep them active in their favorite sports.

Senior athletes face unique challenges due to a lifetime of wear and tear. No matter how young at heart a person feels, the truth is that the body’s joints, bones, ligaments, and tendons degenerate over time. For example, by age sixty, 10% or more of the senior population will have a full-thickness tear in their rotator cuff. This percentage continues to increase over the years, reaching more than 33% by the age of 70 and peaking at more than 50% once an individual hits the 80-year mark.

Does this mean that you should give up sports in your senior years? Hardly! An active lifestyle is essential to healthy aging as it preserves range-of-motion and joint health, as well as boosts cardiac and mental health. Here are a few timeless strategies to avoid injury and perform your best for years to come.

How to Avoid Injuries

There’s no need to let possible injuries scare you away from giving it your all during your next pickleball match. Whether young or old, here are some practical things you can do before competition to properly prepare your bodies and enhance your performance.

Wear the Right Gear

Believe it or not, the right attire can do more than boost your confidence on the court—it can also prevent injuries. The main gear you want to pay attention to is your shoes. I’ve seen broken elbows and even shoulder dislocations resulting from slip-and-falls caused by tripping over laces or poor shoe grip.

Rather than purchase the first pair of cross-trainers you see, I would recommend going to a store dedicated to sports footwear and asking a sales associate what might be the best shoe choice for your desired activity. For example, if you’re a squash or tennis player, proper tennis shoes will have the comfort, grip, and ankle support required to keep you safe and avoid injury. On the other hand, if you are an avid trail runner or hiker, an all-terrain shoe will be best suited for navigating uneven ground. If you have bone spurs, plantar fasciitis, or other foot issues, your best bet is to consult a podiatrist to recommend a shoe that will provide the right amount of cushion, motion control, and stability to support you during your sport of choice.

Another thing to consider when shopping for gear is to make sure you’re properly fitted for it. In fact, one of the leading causes of tennis elbow is using a tennis racket that has too small of a grip. When this happens, players repeatedly grip the racket too hard, leading to overuse and eventually inflammation of the tendons that join the forearm muscles on the outside of the elbow. So, whether it’s a pair of shoes, a racket, ski poles, or a helmet, make sure it’s measured to fit your frame. Your body will thank you for it later!

Warm Up

Stretching is one of the single most important things you can do to prevent injury, regardless of your age. Stretching helps keep the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy—all crucial in maintaining full range-of-motion. Stretching is especially critical for senior players who are more susceptible to joint stiffness, and should be done on a daily basis to protect mobility and independence.

Stretching at least 10 to 15 minutes prior to physical activity is also a must. Not only will this extra movement help you perform better, it will also decrease your risk of injury. Some simple shoulder and elbow stretches include:

  • Across-the-chest stretches
  • Shoulder circles
  • Doorway shoulder stretches
  • Clenching and unclenching fists
  • Wrist extensions
  • Towel twists

Be sure to ease into these stretches, doing several reps at first and then gradually increasing the resistance within your comfort level. Do not, under any circumstances, push to the point of pain.

Listen To Your Body

In my practice, there’s a common theme to many of the elbow and shoulder injuries I see: overuse. To avoid subjecting your body to undue stress, and potentially causing injury, listen to your body and know when it’s time to take a break.

Know your physical limits and play within them. If you ignore the signs when your body is telling you it’s had enough, you could end up with an injury that puts an end to your days as an athlete. For example, if you don’t have the ability to quickly lunge, dive, and run around the court during an entire tennis match—then perhaps it’s time to call it a day. Pacing your game is key to avoiding injuries and playing long-term.

Some common signs your body could use a little rest and relaxation include:

  • Your resting heart rate is higher than normal, which is a signal that your body is pumping more oxygen to recovering tissue
  • You’re tired more than usual or are having a hard time falling asleep
  • You feel mentally fatigued, as if you have a minor head cold
  • You’re sore for longer than 72 hours, which is the maximum time muscles require to recover

Cross Train

Cross-training can also help you avoid overusing your muscles. As you age, your interest in athletics may narrow to one or two sports that you especially enjoy. But if the only physical activity you’re getting is playing racquetball, for example, there’s a good chance your body will become burned out.

Try incorporating other activities into your routine to not only improve your overall health and sports performance, but to also avoid prolonged fatigue and injury. Activities like walking, jogging, biking, aerobics, yoga, or swimming can all help strengthen your muscles and improve your overall fitness levels, which will translate into bigger wins in both your daily life and on the court.

Focus on Balance

People perceive balance in the inner ear, which is where the vestibular system resides. This system connects to the brain, which gives the muscles and joints a message when the body is about to fall, spurring the body to take corrective action. With age, cells in the vestibular system gradually die off, affecting the body’s ability to maintain balance, which unfortunately puts seniors at a higher risk for falls.This can be especially problematic in sports, as fast movements combined with quick changes in direction can increase instability, therefore increasing the risk of injury.

Fortunately, there are a number of simple exercises you can incorporate into your daily routine to help improve your balance over time. One of the most common includes practicing to stand on one foot. Begin by holding onto a chair with one arm and slightly raise your foot off the ground. Then take your foot further off the ground and bend your knee, or put your foot out to the side. Once you can accomplish this without wobbling, try it without holding on to the chair, or stretch one of your arms out to the side. Repeat this movement often to boost your balance, improve your health, and enhance your game.

However, if you’re experiencing vertigo or dizziness, simple exercises like this won’t be enough to eliminate these symptoms. See your primary care doctor to determine if there is a physical reason, such as low blood pressure, a medication’s side effect, or ear infection, that might be affecting your balance. 

I love to help seniors stay in the game, and I hope this blog post serves as a great start to improve your performance on and off the court, and protect your body from unnecessary injury. Considering the wide range of sports-related health topics and strategies, if there is something I failed to cover here or a section you’d like to really dig into, please call our office today to schedule your visit so we can discuss it further.

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