Julie Anderson was one of those dazzling childhood athletes. A ballerina, and tap and jazz dancer. A top-ranked gymnast and a competitive freestyle skier. Aside from an ankle injury, her body was just about invincible. But last August, Anderson turned the big 4-0--and two months later, she was in surgery for a ripped knee ligament. Anderson has accepted that her body is aging. "I don't ski as fast, and I'm much more careful," she says. But she still bikes, Rollerblades, kayaks and plays tennis. "I'm not trying to be who I was at 25," she says, "but I refuse to not do anything." And her friends, she says, are right there with her. "We won't be sitting in rocking chairs. We won't be giving up sports unless we absolutely have to."
Anderson and her friends are the reason knee surgery has almost become a rite of passage for aging boomer jocks. "You cannot treat your body at 50 the way you did at 20," says Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). "You're going to be courting injuries." And courting we are. In a survey of hospital emergency rooms, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission found that between 1990 and 1996, sports-related injuries increased by 18 percent in people 25 to 64--and by 54 percent in people 65 and over. Baby boomers, especially, are indulging in more aggressive sports and getting hurt more often because they're out of shape or too demanding on their bodies. Many are so-called weekend warriors who flee the office for Saturday football games. "My peers," says DiNubile, who is 46, "are trying to turn back the clock."
Ligaments, cartilage and tendons are particularly susceptible to wear and injury, sending millions to orthopedists every year. The tearing of ligaments--the bands of tissue that bind bones together--is nothing new. But treatment for the middle-aged is becoming more aggressive. In the past, older people who ripped their ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, were given a knee brace, a pat on the back and a referral for rehab. Their knees got better but never fully recovered. But now doctors like John Bergfeld, director of sports medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, are operating on them. A decade ago, less than 10 percent of his ACL surgeries were done on patients over 40; today, they account for almost 25 percent. The surgery, performed through an arthroscope, isn't magic (patients still need four to six months of physical therapy), but their knees come out strong and durable. "People are proud of their arthroscopy scars. It shows you're a jock," says DiNubile. "I don't think they talk about their hemorrhoids or prostate problems with the same enthusiasm."
Sports-related injuries aren't just acute rips, tears and pops. In those 40 and over, they're more often chronic problems from years of overuse, routine aging or flare-ups of old injuries. "They creep up on you," says Dr. Andrew Feldman, chief of sports medicine at New York's St. Vincent's Hospital and author of the new book, "The Jock Doc's Body Repair Kit." These are the "itises," says Feldman--arthritis, tendinitis, bursitis. Unbalanced workouts (overdeveloped hamstrings paired with underdeveloped quadriceps ) can also leave muscles and nearby joints prone to injury. Even genetics can play a role. The cartilage, the smooth, shiny surface that cushions the tops of the shin and thigh, is especially vulnerable. Younger athletes damage it playing competitive sports. Middle-aged people are more likely to wear it out, leaving bones rubbing against each other. The result: osteoarthritis. Anti-inflammatories and natural supplements can help ease the pain, but there's still no cure.
Tendinitis is one of the biggest problems for aging jocks. After too much repetitive activity, tendons, which connect muscle to bone, become inflamed. Many boomers complain of tendinitis in the rotator cuff of the shoulder. The cuff, a group of tendons surrounding the joint, can be irritated by weight lifting, swimming, throwing sports (softball) and overhead activities (tennis). Most people get better with anti-inflammatories and physical therapy, but some require surgery. Tendons are also a problem in the elbows. The inflammation is usually called "tennis elbow," but it can also be provoked by swinging a golf club or a hockey stick. And then there's the Achilles' tendon down at the ankle. Remy Fox, 55, ripped his 12 years ago playing wallyball (volleyball in a racquetball court) with twentysomethings. Since then, he's developed tennis elbow and injured his knee. He's a poster boy for aging injuries. "I don't want to be a rehab junkie," says Fox (whose current love is mountain biking), "but I've been forced to."
Despite the pile-up of injuries, the last thing you should do is stop exercising. Muscle mass peaks at age 25 and then decreases by about 4 percent per decade until the age of 50, when it drops by about 10 percent every 10 years. Cells also begin to lose their ability to process oxygen as we age, resulting in diminished endurance. We lose flexibility and, as the inner ear begins to erode, coordination, too. "It's an inevitable process," says Dr. Herbert Haupt, an orthopedic surgeon in St. Louis, Mo. "But can it be blunted? You bet it can."
For starters, begin an active program of stretching and strengthening. Even if your joints feel fine, they could be harboring what DiNubile calls "stealth problems." The best way to condition them is to firm up surrounding muscles. For knees, begin with a series of calf lifts, wall squats and knee curls (graphic). For elbows and shoulders, try exercises with small dumbbells (soup cans will also do). And for ankles, flex your feet toward and away from you. You'll need some instruction since exercises can provoke injuries if performed haphazardly. Workout guides like the "Book of Body Maintenance and Repair," just published by the American Physical Therapy Association, can help. For general information check out the AAOS's patient-education brochures (www.aaos.org or 800-824-BONES). You can also hire a personal trainer (about $25-$75 an hour), or schedule a consultation with a physical therapist (more expensive, but you're paying for greater medical knowledge). See your doctor before exercising joints that feel sore or painful.
Warming up can save you from injury. Alter workouts on a daily basis, too, and substitute sports (biking for running) if certain body parts are giving you trouble. We'd all like to believe that aging is just a state of mind, but we're also smart enough to know the truth. Accept it--and be careful when you fight against it.