April 17, 2008

Fit After Forty: Staying in the Game

(Andre, Armstead B. Line and Kareem, 1969.)

When I was a kid, you rarely saw men or women over 40 doing anything more physically competitive than racing to beat someone to a cab. Or seeing who could finish mowing their lawn first. Or power walking to the corner convenience store for a pack of cigarettes. Now gray is the new black—at least in the hair of athletes around the country.

And many of these middle-age athletes aren’t content to just work out alone listening to Bruce Springsteen sing about glory days on their iPods. They want to compete against other—often much younger—athletes. Softball leagues, pick-up basketball games, and soccer games are packed with enthusiastic parents and grandparents who have put in their time watching their children play sports. Now they’re back, baby, and ready to play like it’s 1999.

The problem is it’s 2008. And our over-40 athletes are a little slower, a little less flexible, a little more vulnerable to injuries. That great spin move to the basket that was your signature move in college is now blocked every time—by a kid younger than your own children. And when you’re standing open for a shot because your defender has sagged off to help guard a stronger player, your teammates still don’t pass you the ball.

Get used to that initial lack of respect, because when it comes to competing after 40, your past accomplishments, trophies and victories don’t matter. You have to earn respect all over again. In fact, you have to try harder because most younger players will take one look at your wrinkles and gray hair and immediately dismiss you as a liability. Fortunately, there are practical steps you can take to stay competitive in your sport, even against younger players. Check those steps below.

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April 10, 2008

The weight of your world: How proper eating can help you lose it

(Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)

Certain things are inevitable.  Death and taxes, of course.  A famous athlete will indignantly deny using steroids, then get caught.  An A-list actor will go on all the talk shows and brag about how proud he is of his new movie—and it will suck.  Reality shows will multiply like randy rabbits.  A politician will be caught up in a sex scandal, and his wife will stand stoically beside him as he publicly confesses all.  Nothing can stop these things from happening.

Same goes for weight gain after 40.

Studies show that after men turn 40, even if you are a devout athlete working out every day, your waistline is fighting to expand.  After you turn 50, the fight turns into all-out war: muscles start to lose mass and the waistline starts demanding larger pants.  This expansion is usually due to increased abdominal fat, which is linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease.  For women, the waistline can predict cardiovascular disease and cancer.  A medical study released this week (and reported in the April 8th Los Angeles Times) concluded that women with waists 35 inches or greater had a 79% higher chance of premature death than women whose waists were 28 inches or less—even if the women were within the “normal” weight range.

The problem with relying just on exercise to combat this gain is it doesn’t work.  A study of nearly 5,000 runners between the ages of 18 and 50 showed that they gained weight at about the same rate no matter how many miles each person ran per week.  While adding 20  minutes on your treadmill time or another set to your weight-lifting routine may keep the muscles trim, for most people, the invading army of fat will continue to gain ground.

However, when you combine a nutritionally balanced diet with exercise, you have a much greater chance of sending fat on a hasty retreat.  That’s why I’m very serious about what I put into my body.  Also, I know that because most people’s heads come up to my waist, they’re staring right at my gut, so every extra inch looks even bigger to them.

OK, so let’s get you eating healthier.

What to Eat
    Remember, your best chance of defeating fat is by combining nutrition with exercise, so the combination of foods I’m recommending is for someone who works out regularly.  This will help fuel your workout and maintain weight control.

  • Carbohydrates.  You’ll need them.  Despite what trendy diets suggest, most athletes eat carbs.  But the trick is in picking the right ones.  Eat multi-grain breads, whole wheat pastas, basmati or brown rice, oatmeal, fruit (fresh, canned, or cooked), sweet potatoes, and new white potatoes.
  • Protein.  This helps your muscles grow.  Also, it fills you up so you’re less likely to overeat or hunt down a Twinkie soon after your meal.  If you’re exercising regularly, you’ll need to eat 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight.  For best results, you should have a protein-rich meal or snack within 90 minutes after your workout.  When selecting your protein source, the key is the keep it as low in fat as possible.  For meats, make sure it’s always a lean cut (and avoid gravies and sauces).  Almonds, peanuts, and cashews are a great source of protein.  So are yogurt, cottage cheese, salmon, chicken breasts, turkey, eggs, milk and tuna.
  • Healthy Fats.  We’ve been programmed to flinch at the word “fats,” but some fats are necessary for a nutritional diet.  The fats found in olive oil, avocado, salmon and nuts is good for you.  However, even though it has the word “healthy” in front of it, you still need to use them moderately.  They are high in calories, so you should limit your daily calorie intake from fats to 20%.

It’s Not Just About Weight Loss
    Don’t worry about losing weight right away.  First, focus on improving your diet, which will make your body stronger and give you more energy.  Then, if losing weight is part of your goal, shoot for a modest but doable one pound per week.  To lose one pound, you’ll have to exert 3,500 more calories than you take in.  This can be achieved by spending 500 more calories a day more than you consume.  The best way to accomplish this is through a combination of diet and exercise: eat 250 calories less each day, and burn off 250 calories more.

Take It Easy
    Don’t make too many radical changes at once.  That shock to your usual routine sets you up for failure.  This is about slowly changing habits.  Each week, replace something that you regularly eat that isn’t healthy with something that is.  The apple instead of the potato chips; the almonds instead of the donut.  The same advice holds for exercise.  Each week add one more set to your weight routine, one more minute to jumping rope or aerobics.

    Within a short time, you will be in control of your health.  As we get older, our bodies may conspire against us, but we didn’t get to this age without learning a few tricks along the way.  Your brain controls your body; don’t let it forget who’s boss.

March 19, 2008

The care & maintenance of the over-50 athlete: Strength training

Whether you’re still trying to be competitive with much younger athletes or are just looking for the maximum health benefits from a fitness routine, strength training is a must.  The problem is that strength training is mostly misunderstood—and therefore misapplied—by many who are over 50 (and even under 50).  And it’s very important that they get it right, because we all start losing muscle strength each year after we turn 30.  That’s right, 30!

Men too often focus all their strength-training attention on their biceps, pumping out preacher curls and dumbbell curls until they can see a small ice-cream scoop of a muscle when they flex their arms.  Forget it, men; bulging biceps do not turn back the clock.  And women too often completely ignore strength training to just focus on cardio and stretching exercises, using the lame excuse that they don’t want to look like the buff women on "American Gladiator."  Don’t worry, there’s no chance of that happening.

Men and women have much to gain from strength training, including lower blood pressure, increased resistance to injury, decreasing arthritis symptoms, and fending off osteoporosis.  Some may lose weight because the body keeps burning calories after the workout is done; some may not actually lose weight (because muscle weighs more than fat), but they will lose pants- and dress-sizes.  In general, you’ll look and feel better.

Getting started

There are some basic rules whenever you start a new exercise routine:

  • Check with your doctor to ensure that you are physically fit enough.
  • Form is more important than weight.  Some muscle-heads at the gym love to stack on the weights and then grunt loudly through their repetitions.  Many of them are using such poor form that they are receiving very little of the benefits.
  • Start with the amount of weight that you can lift 10 to 12 times without losing the form.  You should struggle to complete the last couple reps.  If they are easy, increase the weight by the next increment.
  • Keep breathing.  Generally, you exhale when pushing against the weight and inhale when lowering it.
  • Rest about one minute between sets.
  • Rest two days between working a particular muscle group.  For example, if you work on the chest and arms one day, wait 48 hours before you work them again.  If you want to work out the next day, target a different set of muscles, like the legs and buttocks.  All your muscle and strength gain takes place during these rest periods.

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March 11, 2008

Fit after 50: Staying flexible with yoga

(Photo left: then; Kareem 1981. Photo right: now; Kareem 2008)

Yoga scares some people. They imagine a white-robed cult of New Age zombies sipping herbal green tea and smiling vacantly. For some, the problem is the word itself: yoga. Funny-looking, foreign and too exotic. Okay, for you we’ll call it “power-stretching” or “ultimate breathing” or “hot-bod sculpting.”  Is that better? Because the truth is that yoga is an excellent means of creating a more flexible and healthy body that will be less prone to injuries. And the most important part of staying fit after 50  is avoiding workout injuries that can disrupt your exercise program for weeks or even months.

I’ve been an enthusiastic practitioner of yoga since high school. Yoga is one of the reasons that I was able to play professional basketball as long as I did with as few injuries as I had. One of the first improvements I noticed was in my posture. Before yoga I’d been having lower back pains; after I started practicing the positions, my overall health improved significantly. (FYI: the practice of yoga began 3,000 years ago in India. The word “yoga” is Sanskrit and means to “union,” meaning to join together the mind, body, and spirit.)

There are many different styles of yoga. I practice Bikram yoga as well as several other styles.  Beginners tend to do what I call the “yoga tour” -- that is, trying out the different styles until they find the right ones for them. That’s a perfectly reasonable approach and is more likely to produce the results they’re looking for.

When Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino came to me to ask me how to extend his longevity and deal with all the collision-type injuries you get from playing football, I steered him to yoga; the next time I saw him he said it was absolutely helpful in his training regimen.

Those of you who studied pilates know that a large part of its foundation is based on yoga. My father started doing yoga in his late 70s and it helped him to stop his decline of flexibility.  So whether you're in top athletic shape like my friend Dan Marino or just have old achy bones like my Dad, I thought I'd give those of you who are ready to get started a few tips:

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February 27, 2008

The care & maintenance of the after-50 athlete

Mbenga at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

People in their 20s and 30s mostly work out to train for a specific sport or to look good in a bathing suit. People in their 40s mostly work out to stave off admitting they're middle-aged. But people in their 50s not only have more varied reasons for working out, but they also have a variety of physical problems that need to be considered. Some just want to maintain a level of fitness and health so they can stay active along with their teenage children (or young grandchildren). Some want to continue the camaraderie of playing softball or racquetball or tennis with their longtime friends, but still remain competitive. Even after 50,  no one wants to be the last one picked (maybe especially after 50).

Cardio (short for cardiovascular) exercise is the cornerstone of any good fitness routine. Lots of people get caught up in the glamor of pumping a lot of iron to get those muscles big and bulging. But if they have to haul all that muscle weight up and down a shopping mall with the family, or jump in a pick-up game of basketball, they're soon bent over huffing and puffing. If you're looking to keep a healthy heart and stay as active as possible for as long as possible, balance any weight training with a solid cardio routine.

After the jump are four suggestions. Remember to select according to your own level of fitness, taking into consideration any physical ailments you may have.

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February 13, 2008

Care & maintenance of the over-50 athlete: Core fitness


When I was a kid, most of the fathers over 50 would settle into their sofas at night with a beer and watch TV. Until the remote was invented (the first was in 1950, from Zenith, and it was appropriately named “Lazy Bones”), the most exercise a lot of dads got was getting up to change the channel during the week. On weekends, maybe they mowed the lawns or played catch with their kids. My dad was an exception. He regularly played handball, especially in the summer months.

Today, over-50 athletes are not only common, but they are often in better shape than some of the people they’re playing with who are half their ages. The main difference between them and their younger competitors is the recovery time after playing. The younger players may ache for a few hours, maybe even into the next day, but the older players never stop aching. They have chronic pains in the shoulders, knees, elbows, hips and places they didn’t even know were part of their bodies until they felt pain there. You see them arriving at the basketball court or softball field with wraps and braces and Costco-size jars of Advil rattling in their sports bags. But they show up. They play hard. And many times they’re still standing when the younger players are huffing on the sidelines gulping Gatorade.

If you’re one of those graying warriors — or you just want to compete like one — stay tuned to my blog for a series of entries directed specifically at the over-50 athlete. Today I want to talk about the best way to stay fit and reduce injuries that we are more prone to. The answer: core fitness. The core of your body is located in the 29 muscles around your midsection and hips.  This area is the body’s center of gravity, the source of all your movement.  So the more fit this area is, the better you’ll be able to control your movements, reduce injuries and build power. In fact, core fitness is one of the keystones to the Lakers’ training philosophy.

There are plenty of books and websites that can instruct you on a variety of exercises designed to work these muscles. Or you can work with a personal trainer at a fitness club. There are many core exercises that can be done with a fitness ball. The advantage of using the ball is it teaches you balance and focus. In the meantime, here are some basic core exercises to get you started...

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Captain Kareem

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is considered by many fans and sportswriters to be the greatest basketball player of all time. The 7-foot-2 Hall of Fame center, famous for his indefensible skyhook, dominated the NBA for 20 years, first with the Milwaukee Bucks then with the Los Angeles Lakers. Before that he was the star of the UCLA Bruins teams that won three consecutive NCAA championships. Kareem was the NBA's MVP six times, a 19-time all-star and set the NBA all-time records in nine categories. He is the NBA's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, a record that may never be broken.

Since retiring as a player in 1989, Kareem has balanced his love of basketball with his love of history. In 2002 he led a USBL team, the Oklahoma Storm, to a championship. Since 2005, he has been the special assistant coach for the Lakers, working with Andrew Bynum.

In 2008 he was chosen The Greatest Player in College Basketball History.

Kareem also remains intellectually active, authoring six bestselling history books intended to popularize the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history. His books include "Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement"; "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes"; "A Season on the Reservation," which chronicles his time teaching basketball and history on an Apache Indian reservation in White River, Ariz.; and the current New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance."

His audio adaptation, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Audio & Musical Journey through the Harlem Renaissance," is a four-volume compilation read by Bob Costas, Avery Brooks, Jesse L. Martin, and Stanley Crouch, and features private and fascinating conversations with dozens of icons, including Coach John Wooden, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones and Billy Crystal. He has also been written to L.A. Times, under the Sports section.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been appearing on various radio stations and TV shows, as well as the most relevant websites talking about his life and his new audio book, On the Shoulders of Giants.

All images are property of unless otherwise stated. All info copyrighted and owned by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not replicated without permission.

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