By Pat Staszak, PT

If your mind is willing, but your body…not so much, then you’re not alone!

Aches and pains and your body’s inability to recover as quickly as it used to are some of the unwelcome signs of getting older. Instead of the daily walking, biking, running, jumping and climbing we took for granted as kids, things like work, family obligations, chores, and our DVRs take priority over physical pursuits, and we move a lot less than we did when we were younger. Consequently, many people become weekend-only athletes.

These lifestyle changes (which are often combined with poor posture and maybe a little weight gain) can lead to muscle imbalance patterns, weakness, and worsening stability and balance during sport and day-to-day activities. All of this makes us more susceptible to injuries, overuse syndromes and, eventually, arthritis.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! Certainly some physiological changes that come with aging are tough to avoid. As we age, there is decreased water content in all of our tissues. This contributes to increased stiffness and less pliability in our muscles and tendons, so they don’t respond as well to quick movement. This also leads to degeneration of non-muscular tissues such as cartilage and discs.

The good news is there are several preventative measures you can take to slow down the process. We’ll cover more of these in our sequel, but first, let’s look at some preventable problems contributing to the increased risk for injury and arthritis as we age.

  • Muscle imbalances: Are areas in the body where you have some areas of muscle tightness and other areas of weakness. Imbalances are usually caused by a sedentary lifestyle, poor core strength and lack of stability.
  • Poor muscle endurance:Muscles protect the joints, so if they‘re too weak or tired to handle the load, there will either be an injury to the muscle itself, or the muscle will fail to protect the joints, ligaments or discs, and injury could occur.
  • Timing and coordination:Weekend warriors in particular may not practice a skill or movement enough, which results in a less-than-sharp neuromuscular system. A sedentary lifestyle, though, also contributes to this malady – as evidenced by older adults’ propensity to fall more when they lose their balance, slip on ice or trip over something. Someone who’s in shape has a better chance of catching themselves and avoiding a fall.

These problems, combined with age-related factors, put us at risk for two types of injuries:

Acute injuries occur most frequently in more aggressive sports that require high-velocity movements and quick changes of direction. Think football, basketball, soccer and volleyball. Unfortunately, because of the high incidence of injury, these are usually the first of our activities to go, which then contributes to our moving even less. Examples of acute injuries include a sprained ankle, hamstring strain or a rotator cuff tear in the shoulder.

Overuse syndromes are muscle-fatigue disorders that occur when abnormal stresses are imposed on a tissue, or we put normal stresses on tissue for too long. This results in the tendency for the tissue to break down. Common syndromes are plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, and bursitis.

Oftentimes, having one of these injuries can lead to arthritis as we age and our joints undergo further wear and tear. Arthritis is usually caused by the same things that cause overuse injuries. Eventually, the overloading from muscle imbalances causes this joint degeneration. Cartilage (which is needed for shock absorption) wears away, and the constant stress on the bone produces bony protuberances called osteophytes. This process is often accelerated by excessive body weight or misalignment — e.g., being bowlegged, having flat feet, or scoliosis.

Now that you know some of the causes of injury and arthritis, we can address that word you all know is coming: Prevention.

Preventing these problems takes a little time and effort, and maybe even some lifestyle changes to change some bad habits, but think baby steps. Every little bit helps!

We’ll go into more detail in part 2 of this article next issue, but suffice it to say that an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure, especially when you consider the cost of a doctor’s visit or a joint replacement.