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Preventing injuries as you age

Age happens, and so does normal wear and tear on your body. Your brain may tell you you're still as perky as you were in your 20s, but your shoulder and knee might be telling you something else.

Even when you're active and healthy, adults are at a higher risk of injury as they age. From the competitive marathoner to the outdoor adventurer to the active mom trying to do it all, aging can sometimes be a pain, no matter how young at heart you are.

You may not be able to turn back the clock on aging, but there are ways to prevent injuries as you move through all the decades of life.

Why are older adults more prone to injury?

Forty may be the new 30, but as we get older our bodies change. Because of those changes, you may not be able to push it at the gym, on the court or up the trail like you did a few years ago.

Here are the most common reasons it's easier to get hurt as you age:

  • Loss of muscle mass. It's normal for muscle fibers to diminish starting in your late 30s. And muscle loss accelerates as you get older, especially in sedentary people. Smaller weaker muscles are more likely to sustain injury, especially if you make big changes to your activity level.
  • Reduced elasticity in ligaments. Ever wonder why it takes longer to bounce back from a sprained ankle in your 50s than it did in your 30s? The short bands of connective tissue that secure bones and joints become less flexible as we age. That can put more stress on hips, knees, spine, shoulders and ankles during exercise.
  • Cartilage and tendons get drier. As bodies age, the cartilage that cushions bones and joints holds less water. When cartilage is dry, it's more susceptible to wear and tear when we move and can lead to inflammation and arthritis. Tendons also dry and stiffen, which can cause a tear or rupture when overstretched.
  • Changing bone density. When you're young, bone is replaced more quickly than it's lost. By around age 40, less bone is replaced, causing the bones to become thinner and weaker. There's an even greater risk of bone loss during menopause.

There are other factors that come into play, including lifestyle, diet, body weight and genetics. Some bodies just age sooner. Even 20-somethings can experience bone, ligament, cartilage and tendon degeneration. Others can keep up rigorous physical activity into their 80s and stay injury- and illness-free.

What are the most common injuries in older adults?

Exercise-related injuries are more common as you age. Here are the most common injuries older adults seek care for:

  • Tennis elbow and other overuse injuries. Repetitive strain and overuse injuries are the top reason people seek orthopedic care. And it's not necessarily caused by perfecting your ace serve. Anything you do over and over can cause injury to the tendons in the outside of the elbow joint.
  • Knee injuries. Age is just not kind when it come to the knees. Age-related degeneration makes the knee joint especially susceptible to injury. ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and meniscus tears often happen playing sports. But for many over the age of 30, tears can also occur when hiking, squatting or walking on uneven surfaces.
  • Stress fractures. Thin, hairline fractures are most common in weight-bearing bones of the lower leg and foot. If you're a runner who puts in a lot of road miles, you may be at risk for developing stress fractures in your shin. Stress fractures are also a risk when you take on a new exercise program and do too much, too soon.
  • Low back problems. It's estimated that 80 percent of Americans will experience low back pain at some point in their lives, and it's much more common as you get older. Back issues are often caused by overextending or arching the back during exercise.
  • Rotator cuff and other shoulder injuries. Normal wear and tear can weaken your dominant shoulder, especially if you're doing things that require overhead motion.

Indigo treats most minor illnesses and injuries

Can you prevent injuries as you age?

You can't stop the march of time, but there are things you can do to reduce your risk of injuries as you age.

  • Stay active. While you shouldn't let age stand between you and your workout, you may not be able to push yourself like you used to. High-intensity training (HIIT) may absolutely be your jam. But if it's not, opt for biking, Zumba or swimming. Remember, more isn't necessarily better. Movement is what matters.
  • Up your strength-training game. Targeted strength exercises help with range of motion and mobility. Strength training not only makes your workouts more efficient, but it also tamps down fatigue and the risk of injury.
  • Focus on your core. As you get into your 50s, strong core muscles help reduce back pain and promote good posture. Pilates and yoga are great core-strengthening options.
  • Warm up. Warming up before exercise increases blood flow to your muscles and ups your body temperature. This can improve performance and decrease your risk of injury. Pre-workout, do some light exercise (jogging, walking, jumping jacks) for 5 or 10 minutes.
  • Stretch it out. Flexibility work and stretching are especially important as you age. Yoga, using a foam roller or a simple stretching routine will help you stay loose and limber and decrease the risk of tendon tears or other injuries.
  • Gradually ease into new workouts. Want to try TRX, a 10K or cardio kickboxing? Great! Just take time to build up strength through proper training and conditioning. There's a reason weekend warriors often end up in urgent care or the ER.
  • Give weight machines a try. If you're used to lifting free weights, consider making the switch to weight machines. They can be a safer option as muscles age.
  • Rest when you need to. As you get older, it's normal to feel more fatigue and soreness after a workout. Cut your body some slack and give it time to recuperate between strenuous activities.
  • Listen to your body. If something doesn't feel right, resist the urge to run, lift or play through it. As bodies age, the adage “no pain, no gain” just doesn't cut it. If you have muscle pain that lasts more than a week, or joint pain that doesn't lessen after a day or two, don't ignore it. Stop exercising and see a medical professional.

Indigo Urgent Care is here for all ages

Aging is a normal part of life, but it shouldn't keep you from a healthy, active lifestyle. If you feel the aches and pains of an injury, Indigo Health is here when you need care.

Our refreshingly friendly providers are available every day from 8 am to 8 pm to assess your injury and provide a treatment plan to manage your symptoms. And if a fracture is suspected, all Indigo locations offer onsite digital X-ray services. (We'll even provide a pair of crutches, if needed.)

If you need additional care, we'll refer you to a specialist to help get you on the road to recovery and back in action.

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