Even if you didn’t follow this summer’s World Cup soccer tournament, it’s likely you heard or saw the replay of a famous French star head-butting an Italian opponent in the closing minutes of the championship game. That French star was Zinedine Zidane. He turned 34 in June and retired from international and elite club soccer after his team lost the final to Italy.
No, Zidane didn’t retire out of head-butting shame. Rather, he had previously decided the 2006 World Cup would mark quitting time for his supercharged soccer career because of nagging injuries to his legs. Zidane knew when to say when—even if he was voted the outstanding player of the 2006 World Cup.
Colin Milner, 45, watched the soccer action with keen interest. He likes aggressive soccer games. It was hard for him to admit, but Milner recently realized he couldn’t keep up in pickup games with high school and college guys like he used to. So, he changed his fitness routine to include more individual exercise and mind-body work and a whole lot less pickup soccer, especially with younger players.
It’s the so-called weekend warriors who get into the most trouble, even individuals in their late 20s and 30s, say trainers and exercise scientists. Lots of us keep pushing hard to bring the same “game” or performance to our sports and fitness activities but our bodies are saying, whoa, slow down there before you get too hurt.
Linda Raymond, a Seattle software developer who turns 30 next month, decided this summer was her last playing in a highly competitive softball league. She sensed that “I was still trying to play like a 20-year-old but my knees and [right] elbow were acting like 30-somethings.”
The first turning point was a game in July when Raymond felt a “high-vibe” twinge in both her right knee and throwing arm after making a difficult play from the shortstop position. The second and convincing turning point came about a week later when Raymond finished up a 90-minute yoga class.
“I felt energized but without any twinges,” she recalls, laughing. “I realized that yoga was nurturing me more than playing softball two or three times each week. And I’m thinking it might be a great feeling to see what a summer without elbow pain feels like.”
While some athletes and fitness participants like Raymond are able to listen to their bodies—no small matter—many more just figure they will return to younger form by pushing harder.
Milner’s decision to quit competitive soccer was a simple matter of practicing what he preaches as founder of the Vancouver, B.C.-based International Council on Active Aging (ICAA). His organization embraces aging and provides support to those interested in staying active.
In some cases, a personal trainer can be incredibly helpful, says Milner. Personal trainers can be pricey, but the investment is worth it because it helps you prevent injuries down the road and design workouts to fit your health goals. “The old saying of pay me now or pay me later definitely applies here,” he counsels.
When Paul Schulick was younger, he used to play competitive basketball whenever he could. As Schulick reached his late 40s, however, he started to feel the hard knocks of the game. “When you’re banging into people for a couple of hours, your body doesn’t forgive you as much at that age,” he says. “It just didn’t feel like the right way to go anymore.”
Schulick, now 53, decided to phase in gentler exercises like tai chi, yoga and cycling. As CEO and founder of New Chapter, a Vermont-based herb and supplement company, Schulick has a busy schedule. He makes exercise a priority by fitting it into his day in small bits. For example, he might do an early morning yoga session, then walk five miles or ride his bike for 45 minutes during his lunch hour.
“Exercise is so valuable for my mental health,” says Schulick. “I can become quite anxious if I don’t do it every day. Getting out on a walk just makes me feel good.”
When to Say When
As people age, it’s important to be open-minded about fitness, says Purdue University kinesiologist Cody Sipe. When high-intensity sports like running, basketball or baseball become painful on a regular basis, it’s time to change the mix, he says. Adding low-impact activities will make it possible for people approaching mid-life to keep up sports they love for longer.
Knowing when to say when about sports-related pain is becoming a pressing issue for thousands of Baby Boomers, who have the potential to be the most fit generation of older Americans to date. According to the Met Life Mature Market Institute, there are more than 32 million older Boomers, born between 1946 and 1955 and more than 44 million younger Boomers, born 1956 to 1964.
“This rising group is different from the older ‘older adult,’” says Sipe, who works with aging clients as director of Purdue’s A.H. Ishmael fitness center. “This group has been involved with exercise throughout life.”
Unlike past groups of seniors, aging Boomers are more likely to overdo it than to sit on the couch too much. The key is responding to pain at the right time in the right way, says Sipe.
“There’s no magic time to quit or change,” he advises. “When people start to consistently see that activities they’ve done for a long time are causing them problems, they need to modify their routines.”
The Alternate Route
Typically, the knees go first, says Sipe. Low-impact alternatives like walking, swimming or biking can build up muscles around the knee without putting wear and tear on the joint, he explains. Yoga and tai chi are other good options, with mind-body benefits that reduce stress.
“Some people need motivation not to overdo it,” says Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, a fitness and aging expert from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Chodzko-Zajko counts himself in that category and offers a valuable tool: an exercise diary. A person who used to run religiously every day could cut back to every third day, he suggests. On alternate days, pencil in a bike ride, weight-lifting or a swim. Chodzko-Zajko uses his fitness diary to schedule at least one rest day every week.
For hard-core exercisers, the toughest part is accepting the need for change. During the Vietnam era, Baby Boomers used to chant “Hell no, we won’t go,” Milner recalls. And now they’re applying that mantra to aging.
“Part of the skill of aging successfully is being able to adapt,” says Chodzko-Zajko. “Celebrating getting older instead of denying it—that is really important.”
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