Baby boomers, beware. If you ignore your aging body while exercising or playing sports, you run a high risk of suffering an injury. That's the word from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) and the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) in a message about boomeritis. Boomeritis is the escalating number of sports-related injuries happening to baby boomers.

What Makes Boomers Injury-Prone?

Several factors have prompted the growing number of boomer sports injuries. For starters, people are living longer. Also, more people are playing sports.

Most importantly, though, baby boomers are the first generation to know how crucial activity is to living a longer, healthier life. "This is the first generation trying to stay active in a body that's aging," according to Nicholas A. DiNubile, MD, the chair of the Public Relations Oversight Group for the AAOS. Of course, there have always been some people who stay active as they age.

DiNubile, a baby boomer who coined the term boomeritis, contrasts baby boomers with people from his parents' generation who became inactive as they aged. "If their bodies hurt, they stopped the activity," he says. Not anymore.

Today's baby boomers know that exercise helps keep them healthy and active, but they don't always acknowledge the changes in their bodies. They try to do things they did when they were younger, and that's where trouble starts. "Trying to recapture their youth gets a lot of boomers into trouble," says Robert Stanton, MD, instructor of orthopaedics at Yale University School of Medicine.

What Should Boomers Know About Their Aging Bodies?

Unfortunately, bodies change with age. Tendons and ligaments lose some of their elasticity, which leads to reduced range of motion in the joints, making these areas more prone to injuries. And when injuries strike aging bodies, recovery usually takes longer.

Without regular exercise, people also lose muscle mass. Muscle loss related to aging usually begins in the mid-forties (earlier if you're inactive) and may decline as much as 10% after the age of 50. Regular exercise can slow that loss significantly, but if you don't use your muscles regularly, the tissues become weaker and less compliant.

Although boomers accumulate a variety of injuries, the most common injuries involve ]]>sprains]]> (stretching or tearing of a ligament) and ]]>strains]]> (stretching or tearing of a muscle or tendon) in the shoulders, knees, and ankles. "People try to do too much too quickly," Stanton says.

As a result, tissues tear slowly, causing some soreness. People often don't recognize soreness as a problem, and they work through the pain, causing additional soreness and injuries such as ]]>tennis elbow]]> , ]]>achilles tendinopathy]]> , and ]]>shin splints]]> .

How Can Boomers Avoid Injuries?

If you want to live a longer, more productive life, you have to exercise daily. But if you're a baby boomer, you have to use your brain, too. "You have to be smart about what you do and realize that at 50, you can't do what you did when you were 20," DiNubile says.

So you may not be able to play hoops to the level of your 30-year-old colleagues. Maybe you can't play as many back-to-back tennis matches as you once could. Make modifications and play smart so that you don't end up a casualty of your ego.

To prevent injury, follow these tips from the AAOS and AOSSM:

  • Get a basic medical screening. If you're over 35 and haven't been involved in regular conditioning, call for a check-up with your doctor. Find out if you have any conditions that would put you in jeopardy while exercising.
  • Stick with a balanced exercise program. Don't rely solely on your sport to keep you in shape, especially if you only play that sport one or two days a week. Follow a program that includes cardiovascular activity, ]]>strength training]]> , and ]]>stretching]]> .
  • Warm up and stretch before physical activity. Cold muscles are more prone to injury, which is why you're asking for trouble if you skip the warm-up. Wake up those muscles with light jogging or ]]>walking]]> . Then stretch the major muscles you'll be using; hold each stretch 30 seconds without bouncing.
  • Ditch the weekend warrior attitude. You can't possibly make gains in fitness by cramming your activity into two days. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity every day with activities such as jogging, walking, ]]>swimming]]> , cycling, and strength training.
  • Take lessons. Hire a trained professional to help you attain and maintain proper form in your sport.
  • Get the right equipment for your sport. If, for example, the tread on the bottom of your shoes is worn, replace the shoes. If you're a cyclist, don a properly fitted helmet.
  • Follow the 10% rule. Ready to increase the level of your activity? Okay, but do so in 10% increments. If you currently walk two miles, don't expect to walk four miles tomorrow. Instead, build your activity level gradually. This rule applies to working with weights, too.
  • Be cautious about adding new exercises. Whether you're a seasoned fitness enthusiast or new to exercise, avoid taking on too many activities at once. Add activities gradually.
  • Listen to your body. Every day your body sends you messages about how it's feeling. Pay attention to those messages. Do your knees hurt when you ski through the moguls like you did 10 years ago? Then skip those bumps. They're not worth it in the long run.
  • Seek professional help if you injure yourself. Consult an orthopaedic surgeon for injuries such as ]]>tendinopathy]]> , ]]>arthritis]]> , stress fractures, or low back pain.