What Can You Do To Stay Active As You Age?
I am now 50 years old, a time when your body begins to ache and things start to go wrong. Like me, you’ve likely seen 60 and 70 and even 80 year olds that are running, biking 100 miles, climbing mountains, or just behaving like they’re still 30. You also likely know people this age who can’t do these things and may struggle with walking a mile. While some of this is genetic, some of it is also based on the good and bad choices these people make throughout their lives. Like you, I desperately want to be that 80 year old who can still “kick it”.
You probably pay attention to the status updates or texts on your phone more than you do your body. Yet paying attention to your body’s status updates may make the difference between being that active 80 year old or the person who can barely walk. To be “proactive” you need to catch small problems before they snowball into big issues and prevent them when possible. To do this, you need to understand both how your body works and its status updates.
The top 7 Status Alarms:
1. Joint or body part aching after exercise: You go for a run or work out at the gym and your knee aches, so you pop some Motrin. Why is this a big deal? Every time you’re active, some cells die off and are replaced via local stem cells in the joint. A small amount of inflammation is created and this is your body’s repair mechanism in action. This is barely noticeable. However, when your joint aches it’s because too much damage is being caused or you no longer have the ability to repair small amounts of damage efficiently. Popping a Motrin or similar anti-inflammatory may make it feel better, but it also inhibits that normal healing cycle. So while these medications may be all right every once in a while, if you can’t really exercise or function without them, there are serious problems brewing in the joint. This applies equally to knees, shoulders and other peripheral joints and to whole body regions like the neck or the back. The aching is the “tweet” from your body that something needs to be fixed or this area will soon not be able to function well.
2. Burning, pressure, numbness, or tingling-There’s really only one thing that causes these symptoms in the body, an irritated nerve. Most people don’t really understand the significance of why this is a big deal. Nerves power muscles and fine tune the movements and your reactions to things like uneven ground or a sudden shift or push. An irritated nerve not only doesn’t completely fire muscles, leading to bio mechanical imbalances, it also reduces the information flowing back about how your joints should move. For example, there are thousands of tiny position sensors in every joint, finely tuning your muscles many times a second to millimeter precision to keep your joint functioning at 100%. A pissed off nerve that carries these signals doesn’t transmit all of that data, hence your muscles can’t protect your joint.
There’s another aspect of an irritated nerve that is only now being appreciated, they cause nasty chemicals to dump into a joint, leading to more arthritis. A normal joint is an environment where a carefully coordinated chemical symphony assists the cells in the joint in staying healthy and active. An angry nerve that goes to a joint causes this chemical balance to go awry, leading to the joint not being able to keep up with its own maintenance. Like a large screech in the middle of that beautiful music.
3. Chronic tightness in muscles that keeps returning-Are you that person who’s always stretching their hamstrings or other muscle and while it may relax for a while, the next time you work out it’s tight all over again? What causes this and why is it a big deal?
Most people who have this problem are taught stretches, or get the area massaged out. Many of them use a foam roller on areas like the hamstrings or side of the thigh (ITB or ilio-tibial band). They get told by athletic trainers, personal trainers, massage therapists, or physical therapists that it’s just a tight muscle that they need to stretch. If that’s the case, why only this muscle and why does it keep coming back? The answer is that the nerves in the spine that supply this muscle are irritated. While we doctors invented terms like “nerve” and “muscle” to describe the different structures we saw during anatomy class, to the body there is little difference between the nerve and the muscle it supplies- they are all one thing. So when the nerve is pissed off; so is the muscle.
These chronically tight muscles cause other issues, such as parts of the body that don’t move normally. For example, we’d all accept at face value that if an old car had parts that should be flexible that weren’t that other parts connected to them would get worn out faster, for some reason patients often can’t conceptualize this in the body. In the case of chronically tight muscles, the tendons on either end that attach to bone tend to get overloaded and start to get degenerative as we age. So for example, chronically tight hamstrings can become pain behind the knee, where the hamstrings muscle attaches. Or a chronically tight calf can become an Achilles tendon tear.
4. Asymmetry-Your body was built to operate at its best only one way-symmetrical. This means that the left/right and front/back balance is equal. If you have something like scoliosis (a curve in the spine), you know you’re not balanced. However, most people have areas that aren’t equal side to side and don’t know it. However, small differences here can turn into huge issues over time.
For example, range of motion is an area people don’t notice. For example, do both hips rotate outward and inward to the same amount, or are they different? If one hip doesn’t move as much in a certain direction, your body weight is being placed over a small area of the cartilage of the joint. This means that this hip will likely get arthritic more quickly as you age.
Another common issue is a high shoulder. Look in a mirror and see if your shoulders are the same height. If you carry a purse or a computer bag, does it slip off more easily on one side? Does one shoulder come higher when you lift weights? A high shoulder places more wear and tear on that rotator cuff and biceps tendon and kinks your neck on that side, which can lead to rotator cuff tears, biceps tendonitis, and more arthritis on that side of the neck.
5. Weakness-Just like your body was designed to be structurally symmetrical, it was also designed to be equally strong in most areas. While you may be right or left handed and be a little stronger on your dominant side, people often have weak areas that they don’t notice or maybe they do notice but they ignore. Weakness in any area can move the joints there abnormally or can fail to protect an area.
For example, the buttocks muscles act as shock absorbers for the hip as you land while running. They also protect the low back when lifting. Patients that have chronic knee cap pain often see a doctor who focuses on the knee, yet recent research shows that most of these patients have weakness in the butt muscles. The quadriceps muscles must take the place of the weak butt muscles to absorb the shock of landing, which ends up overloading the kneecap joint. This leads to pain that has nothing to do with the original problem area.
6. Tendonitis-The muscles attach to the bones through a tendon. As I discussed above, the muscles are moved by nerves and when the nerves aren’t happy, the muscles malfunction ever so slightly. Parts of them shut down, developing trigger points. These areas are tight bands that don’t contract and relax normally like a healthy muscle. This causes too much pulling on the areas where the tendons attach or tendonitis.
Why is this a status alert? For example, chronic tennis elbow that won’t easily respond to treatment is an indication of a pinched nerve in the neck. The C6 or 7 nerves supply these forearm muscles and can malfunction in small areas when these nerves are irritated. So what the patient believes is an elbow problem is really a status alert from the neck.
7. Systemic inflammation-Inflammation is how we heal, but this is apples and oranges when compared to chronic inflammation. This second type of inflammation creeps up as we age, more for some of us than others. This is the type of chronic problem that can hurt your heart as well as your joints. However, there are ways to help control this problem.
How would you know if you have this issue? Do you need Motrin, Aleve, or Celebrex (or a similar drug) just to keep your multiple aches and pains at bay? If you stop these drugs can you make it? If you do, consider switching to a high dose fish oil, as drugs like Motrin and Aleve are associated with much higher risks of sudden death heart attack!
The upshot? Listening to your body may just make the difference so you can be that very active older person, full of life, hiking, jogging, or climbing mountains when you’re 80. Ignore your body and blow these things off and you’re more likely to be that guy or gal in a walker!