October 16, 2001 -- On vacation in San Francisco a few years ago, Mary Duffy, a 45-year-old writer, thought she'd give a circuit training class a try. At one point, the class required her to jump on a mini-trampoline. "I kept jumping higher and higher when suddenly I came down on the frame and my ankle buckled," says Duffy, who lives in New York. "I ended up in the emergency room with a fracture. It took a year and a lot of physical therapy before I could start exercising again."
Eventually Duffy did get back to her usual running workouts and stationary cycling classes. But it wasn't long before another problem developed: debilitating knee pain, an injury her doctors attributed to overuse, and which landed her in physical therapy again. "I think a lot of it has to do with age," she says. "I used to be able to go out on the weekend and do something active and not feel anything, even when I hadn't exercised all week. Now everything hurts."
There's actually a name for what ails Duffy: "boomeritis," a term coined by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. It refers to the growing number of sports injuries among baby boomers. Boomeritis is so rampant, says the AAOS, that the organization has trademarked the term and developed a web site (www.boomer-itis.org) geared toward helping those who suffer from it.
Tip of the Iceberg
Indeed, the numbers do suggest that there's cause for concern. According to a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report released in 1999, the sheer plentitude of baby boomers has led to a record number of hospital emergency room visits: In 1998, ERs treated more than one million sports injuries sustained by people born between 1946 and 1964 -- a 33% increase from seven years earlier.
"And that's probably just the tip of the iceberg because most people with sports injuries aren't badly enough hurt to go to the emergency room," says Nicholas A. DiNubile, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, who worked with the AAOS to get the word out about boomeritis. "The next thing we need to look at is how many people are going to doctors' offices for sports injuries."
In the Consumer Product Safety report, bicycle riding was the most common activity to send baby boomers (66,100 of them) to the ER. Basketball was the second most common culprit (48,230 treated); unspecified forms of exercise and running came in third (32,370); and skiing, fourth (28,150). The data, though, don't include any statistics about tendinitis in the shoulders and arthritis in the knees, conditions that DiNubile believes may be even more common. These problems are generally the result of years of wear and tear on the body. Or of overuse -- that is, simply doing the same thing over and over again until the body finally objects. (A swimmer's simple act of slicing her arm through water day after day is a perfect example).
By drawing attention to injuries among baby boomers, the AAOS isn't trying to dissuade people from exercising. Quite the opposite -- the group advises boomers to stay active because being sedentary is much more of a health risk than injury from exercise. Yet middle-aged bodies aren't as resilient as they used to be; by encouraging boomers to acknowledge this, the AAOS also hopes to get them to start exercising more safely.
How can you avoid being sidelined by injury? Here are some important steps DiNubile recommends:
Make sure your fitness regimen includes a balance of cardiovascular activity, strength training, and flexibility exercises. "The better condition you're in, the less likely you are to get injured," says DiNubile. And if you haven't been exercising for quite some time, it's a good idea to get your doctor's approval before starting up again.
Spice Up Your Life
By mixing up your game plan -- say, walking three days a week, then rounding out the week with stationary cycling and rowing machine workouts -- you'll give muscles a rest that might otherwise be subject to overuse.
Stretch Early and Often
While there isn't much research to definitively show that stretching keeps injury at bay, many experts are convinced that it helps. "Tight muscles are susceptible to injury," says DiNubile, "and since muscle tissue decreases in elasticity and develops scar tissue with age, older muscles are even more vulnerable."
It's important, though, to stretch only when the muscles have been warmed up. So save flexibility exercises for the end of your aerobic workouts, or do them only after five to 10 minutes of activity vigorous enough to make you break a sweat. Running in place or walking several blocks should do the trick.
Go for the Gear
A helmet for cycling, wrist guards for in-line skating, running shoes that fit properly -- such accoutrements can sometimes make the crucial difference between enjoying your workout and ending up in the ER or doctor's office.
Be conservative as you build up your workouts. Increase your activity by only 10% per week; for instance, move from running 20 minutes to 22 minutes rather than jumping to 30 minutes.
This final point is a lesson that Duffy, unfortunately, had to learn the hard way. But now she's back on track. "I want to eventually run a 10-mile race, but I'm working up to the distance very slowly," she says. "I'm also doing a lot of yoga these days. No more being the weekend warrior."
Daryn Eller is a health and fitness writer based in Venice, Calif. Her work has appeared in Health, Self, Fitness, and many other publications.