Boomer Esiason is both a baby boomer and a former professional football player, which makes him the perfect go-to guy to discuss the aches and pains of being active and over 40 a set of conditions that has playfully inspired the medical term "boomeritis." (The fact that Esiason's first name is "Boomer" only underscores his qualifications.)
Of course not every baby boomer is a Boomer. But many 40-, 50- and even 60-somethings are weekend warriors, meaning they play tennis four times a month, run 5 miles on their days off, or even tackle a Saturday afternoon game of touch football.
Bottom line? If you are over 40 and athletic, chances are you're feeling some pain come Monday morning. Stiffened joints, aching muscles, and slow-moving limbs are the most common side effects weekend warriors often experience. And while these physical setbacks may tempt you to sit on the sidelines forever, most doctors recommend doing just the opposite. In other words: Get up, get out, and play more.
Move Your Body
At 44, Esiason is far from being the oldest member of the baby boom generation. But after 14 years in the NFL, his body has taken more punishment than the average adult sees in a lifetime, making him something of an expert on pain management. And he credits his physical and mental health to staying active.
And staying active is something all boomers should do.
"Activity is the key to life," Esiason says. "It's the most important thing for a sound mind and a sound body. The miserable times in my life are when I am not active. When I am working out [regularly] and competing in something, my level of getting things done rises immensely."
That might sound good coming from a pro athlete, right? But in fact, medical research supports Esiason's position. Studies show people who exercise regularly have increased energy and think, sleep, and cope with stress better.
"Once you're an athlete, I don't care if you started in high school or college or whenever, you still have this competitive edge," Timothy E. Kremchek, MD, tells WebMD the Magazine. "You don't have to be under a certain age to be competitive. And that can be very healthy if not taken too far. What we do in sports medicine is to make people understand how to do it the right way."
Kremchek, a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), is experienced in treating both professional athletes and weekend warriors.
Do It the Right Way
According to Kremchek, there are two kinds of physical activity problems for baby boomers: The first, and most common, is not getting enough exercise. The second is forgetting one's age.
"We are in society where we want to do at 45 what we did at 25, and to do at 65 what we did at 45," he says. "It is my goal to keep people out there and active and healthy in a safe way. The key, as Boomer told you, is to do things you enjoy, whether it is running or golf or swimming or hockey, but to do it the right way."
But what if you are playing with old injuries? Maybe you were a college track star and your joints have never recovered, or you suffer from chronic tennis elbow. For starters, you're not alone.
Baby boomers are credited with ushering in the original fitness movement in the '70s and '80s and continuing through the '90s and into the present. Unfortunately, they're also on the leading edge of sports injuries. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, sports injuries among the baby boom generation increased a whopping 33% in the '90s, contributing to the estimated 17 million sports injuries in America each year.
Esiason can certainly weigh in on this one: "My feet kill me, especially in the morning when I get up," he says. "I played in the early '80s and '90s in those cookie-cutter stadiums with old Astroturf. You actually get hit twice every time you are tackled: once by the defensive player and once by the ground. And that old Astroturf hit hard."
Despite suffering three concussions during his career including, in 1994, being knocked unconscious in one of the most frightening hits ever seen on national television Esiason counts himself as lucky.
"Every professional football player leaves the game with some sort of ache and pain most have had some surgery," he says. "I was in the NFL for years and never broke a bone and never had invasive surgery. I am one of the few to leave in relatively good health."
The key to continued activity is finding new ways to move your body. Boomer's good health and aching feet led him to try a new sport in retirement: hockey. A self-proclaimed "fanatic," he took up the game with a vengeance.
"Now I play pretty much full time through the summer and winter months," he says. "And what do you know? It doesn't hurt my feet."
Know Gain from Pain
Esiason had to learn the difference between playing with pain as a professional and avoiding injury as an amateur. And it's a lesson weekend warriors can learn from, too.
"The professional athlete culture says play now and check it out later. And you always had a trainer to get you through, whether it was a smashed hand or a stiff neck," he explains. "But once I [no longer had] trainers and that culture around me, I found out that preventive health care has to be part of my life."
Never play through the pain. Even Boomer won't do it anymore!
Baby boomers such as Boomer are lucky, Kremchek says. Today's sports medicine means that most people can continue to play the sports they love for as long as they like — provided they learn new tricks.
Here are some tips for baby boomers from the AAOS:
Warm up and stretch before any physical activity. "I stress the fact that warm-up and stretching are two different things," Kremchek says. "You warm up first, get a little sweat going, then stretch and maybe, if it's cold out, warm up again. The older you are, the stiffer your body is. So you have to spend that time."
Don't exercise just on the weekends. weekend warriors need weekday activity at least 30 minutes every day.
Take lessons, even if you've been playing a sport for a long time.
Use good equipment, especially the shoes appropriate for your sport. Replace equipment as soon as it starts to look worn.
Pay attention to your body. "A sharp pain or a very uncomfortable feeling is probably an injury," Kremchek says. "Have a doctor look at it. Remember, the longer it goes on, the harder it will be to get back from."
The 10% rule: Don't increase your usual activity by more than 10% at a time. If you normally walk two miles, don't jump to 12 miles. Build up endurance gradually, especially when weight training.
Balance your activity. All sports require strength, flexibility, and endurance. So your fitness program should include weight training, stretching, and cardiovascular exercise.
If you have or had a sport injury such as tendinitis, consult a sports medicine professional to develop the fitness routine that is best for you.