It’s not that you’re aging; it’s that you’ve been fighting gravity longer. Sounds like a dad joke, but Dr. Mariam Zakhary, a sports medicine physician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, is very serious about this advice. “When we talk about joint health, when we talk about our back, when we talk about your normal wear and tear, people would say ‘I’m aging’ — I hate that word,” she says. “No, we’re living another day on a planet with gravity, and it’s normal wear and tear, we all live through it.”
Let this idea settle in. Since the day you were born, you’ve been fighting the planetary pull — whether with growing pains, with the good hurt of muscle gain, or with a more on-the-nose tumble off of, say, a bike. Wear and tear is normal, and it’s never going to leave us. The fight goes on. A more optimistic way of seeing this is that you’re not destined to land on the injured reserve list, you’ve just got to continue to evolve, like you’ve done since you were a tot falling off the monkey bars or a high school soccer player straining a calf. With a few more years on us, the key to injury prevention hasn’t changed all that much. Here’s a helpful reminder — a nine-point checklist to staying as physically fit as you can be, given the Newtonian limits our world has to offer.
1. Core strength always has and always will come first.
We all know the importance of core strength. But too many people focus on abs as the visible marker of a fit core. Everybody has a six-pack somewhere in there, Zakhary says, but exposing it to the world through ab-shredding exercises isn’t a great use of your time or energy. Instead, Zakhary recommends a steady diet of core-strengthening exercises that strengthen the muscles in your pelvis and hips, which in turn aligns your lower body, which will help you optimize your performance and reduce your chance of injury. And working with a professional who can help you master those techniques is the ideal way to get started, she says (more on that below).
2. Stabilizing muscles do what it sounds like they do.
Your core is vital, but it isn’t the only group of stabilizing muscles critical to improving overall physical health and limiting your risk of injury. It’s just as important to strengthen the muscles transversing your ankles and knees and those surrounding your shoulders in addition to strengthening the better-known muscles around your hips and spine, Zakhary says.
3. As you age, technique matters more.
If you’re going to the gym and aren’t diligent about your technique in any exercise you’re doing, you’re asking for an eventual trip to the orthopedist. Any exercise you do, you should be trained or closely study the proper mechanics, which should be rooted in a balanced center of gravity. “From a movement standpoint, we always mention activating the center of your body,” says Bryan Hart, the head body coach at TB12 Sports. He suggests practicing exercises using only your body’s resistance before adding weights. “Let’s understand that basic movement first, get that control, and then progress from there,” he says.
4. Monotony leads to injury, variety to strength.
A healthy exercise routine involves variety — if you’re running five days a week and not engaging in muscle-building exercises, you’re not building the muscle mass necessary for optimal joint health, and you increase your chance of injury, Zakhary says. Hart recommends resistance band workouts as a means of strengthening muscles without risking injury. “Bands allow you to do a good variety of workouts, [get] good movement, but don’t cause that increased load on your joints,” he says.
5. Drink half your body weight daily.
Drinking water is vital to maintaining joint and muscle health, and Hart recommends drinking at least half your body weight in ounces of water each day. Zakhary says drinking lots of water is critical, but the key is to not drink so much that you wash necessary electrolytes out of your system. She recommends electrolyte powders and food sources with magnesium and sodium to maintain a healthy level of electrolytes.
6. Foam rolling is crucial.
We’ve known for a while that a lot of the stretches we grew up with are not as helpful as we were taught. The advent of ridged foam rollers that dig into our muscles was driven by an understanding that to truly gain pliability, muscles need to have their knots worked out, something stretching can’t always do. Imagine, Hart says, a rope with a knot in the middle. In the case of, say, a tight calf muscle, stretching alone won’t get the knot out. “If I pull on either end of that rope, the knot gets tighter,” Hart says. Instead, you want to break up that knot and ease muscle tension, then flex that muscle during that process to retrain your brain to understand what it is like to fire that muscle when it is pliable, not knotted up.
7. You are what you eat.
Both experts emphasized the importance of eating healthy as a key to maintaining overall health and limiting potential injury. Zakhary says it’s important to focus on food inclusivity instead of exclusivity. “Hyperfocusing on what not to eat leads to disordered eating, disordered eating leads to higher rates of injury,” she says. Instead, make sure you’re eating leafy greens for their vitamin hauls and anti-inflammatory qualities as well as plenty of protein and good fats, which improve brain function and decrease brain fog, which can lead to injuries. And while you’re making sure to eat more of all the right things, it’s imperative to banish food guilt, Zakhary says, and remind yourself that it’s also OK to eat that dessert when you’re so inclined.
8. Sleep isn’t a joke.
Studies show that adults need at least six hours of sleep and ideally eight. Those recommendations are meant to drive optimal performance, Zakhary says, but optimal performance also translates to reducing the risk of injury. For parents of younger children, it’s particularly important to control what you’re able to control by getting yourself to bed with plenty of time to sleep, Hart says, because you don’t know what those strange little people will get up to on any given night that will disrupt your sleep.
9. Go hard, then rest.
As you set performance or even basic gym attendance goals, remember to give your body time to recover in between exercises. Hart recommends one to two days in between days of robust activity, with light pliability, mobility, and core exercises to keep your brain and muscles in tune without burning them out. Most importantly, listen to your body, and give it rest when it needs it.
A lot of this we know already, so it’s as much a matter of willpower to introduce these things into our lives. Zakhary and Hart suggest committing yourself to realistic, manageable goals while also being forgiving to yourself are the keys to improving your health in ways that can keep you physically active while reducing your risk of injury.
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