The Care & Maintenance of the After-50 Athlete

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.

Jumping rope. Jumping rope is my first choice for best overall cardio workout. I’ve been jumping rope for 30  years and, though the image of a 7-foot-2 man jumping rope may make you smile, I assure you that it keeps me in great shape. Not only does it burn more calories than many other cardio exercises, it improves your balance, agility, foot speed, and hand-eye coordination. Jumping rope at 130 revolutions per minute is equivalent to running at 6 miles per hour or cycling 12 miles per hour. Ten minutes of jumping rope at that pace is like running a mile. Also, you can adjust the intensity of the workout to your own level of fitness. If you are in good shape, you can jump longer and faster. If you’re a beginner, go slow and steady.

Important tips: (1) Be sure to use a jump rope that is the proper length for your height. Stand on the middle of the rope; the handles should be the same height as your armpits. (2) Jump on surfaces with give, such as wood, carpet, or mats (avoid concrete). (3) Keep your jumps to an inch or two in height. Keep your elbows close to your sides and use the wrists to turn the rope. Keep your eyes on a fixed point straight ahead and breathe through your nose. (4) To improve heart and lung fitness, you need to do this three to five times a week. (5) Caution: This exercise is not recommended if you have hip or knee problems.

Running. Yes, this old standby really works. The benefits of running have been preached by the faithful since James Fixx’s “The Complete Book of Running” (1977) transformed this from a simple fitness exercise to some kind of spiritual awakening. People extol the virtues of running for its effects on the mind as well as the body. You can decide that for yourself. For me, running is a great way to burn calories (300 per 30 minutes for a 145-pound person), doesn’t require membership in a gym, and allows you to get some fresh air. Also, if you have small children, you can run while pushing them in special strollers. Or, if the children are older, you can run with them as a family outing. Running also reduces stress and reduces muscle and bone loss caused by aging.

Elliptical trainer. This low-impact exercise is perfect for fitness beginners and veterans alike. Not only does it build endurance, it burns calories at the rate of 300 per 30 minutes for a 145-pound person, the same as in running, but with less physical stress on the body.

Swimming. This is another low-impact cardio exercise that offers a variety of benefits. One benefit is that it can be continued throughout your life, regardless of many minor injuries or ailments. Also, while it’s building your cardio capabilities, it’s also building muscle strength. It’s also excellent for weight loss: swimming the breast stroke for 30 minutes burns about 400 calories.

As with any new exercise routine, approach with caution and common sense. Start light until you feel comfortable with the exercise, then slowly increase your intensity and duration.

That’s how we over-50 athletes let everyone else know that a little gray hair doesn’t mean we’re not still in the game.

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