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5 Ways to Avoid an Exercise Injury After Age 50

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While staying safe at a gym took on a whole new meaning during the pandemic, if you’re thinking about getting back to a fitness regimen this summer, you’ll be wise to consider the more pedestrian dangers involving treadmills and bench presses — especially if you’re over 50.

Exercise-related visits to the ER topped 107,000 for those 50 and older in 2020, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission — and that figure is slightly lower than usual due to fewer people exercising during the pandemic. And speaking of treadmills: Around 20,000 people in the U.S. are treated in emergency rooms for injuries from this piece of equipment alone each year.

“Doing exercises the wrong way can be worse than doing nothing at all,” says Jeremy James, a chiropractor and creator of an at-home fitness program designed for older adults or those with preexisting injuries.

The good news? It’s not difficult to stay safe and reap the plentiful health benefits of exercise (which include helping you avoid injuries from falls after 50 by building up leg muscles and improving your balance). You just have to keep your focus and follow a few key tips. Here’s your first one: Wear that red safety clip when you’re on the treadmill to stop the belt if you start to slip or stumble.

Here are other smart ways to avoid common mistakes that can lead to injuries.

1. Ease into it

It’s good to be fired up about working out, but don’t let that motivation push you too far, too fast. “Often, people jump right into workouts that are not meant for beginners, and they haven’t developed the musculature, particularly core strength,” to do it with proper form, James says. This is especially risky with strength training, where getting sloppy with proper form to squeeze out a certain number of reps can result in injuries such as rotator cuff tears and lower back strain.

James’ advice: “Only use the amount of resistance or weight and number of reps that you can do with perfect form. The last two to three reps should be challenging, but not so challenging you have to break form.”

2. Stop skipping your warm-up

While stretching (the kind you do standing mostly still and flexing a calf or hamstring) can be done at any time during or after your workout, there is no evidence that it helps prevent injuries. What you should do instead? A warm-up.

As opposed to stretching, a warm-up involves movements similar to your workout but done more slowly. “The purpose of a warm-up is to increase blood flow to the muscles, improve tissue elasticity and stimulate the nervous system,” says Lauren Shroyer, a certified trainer and senior director for product development at the American Council on Exercise. “Think of it as slowly accelerating into your workout. A warm-up is important for avoiding injury, especially as we age and our soft tissue becomes less elastic.”

That doesn’t mean you can skip stretching altogether. Just save it for after your warm-up (when tissues are warm) or the end of your session. Stretching can reduce the buildup of lactic acid in muscle tissue, which contributes to lingering soreness and aches. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching each muscle group for at least 60 seconds.

3. Invest in the right shoes

“There is no shoe that can prevent injuries, but there are definitely plenty that can cause them in the wrong person,” says Matthew Klein, a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist and founder of Doctors of Running. Shoes that are too narrow up front (the area called the toe box) can hold your feet in positions that may predispose you to a bunion. As you age, the risk of soft tissue injuries that affect areas like the calf and achilles tendon also increases, he adds.

In general, Klein says to look for a shoe that was designed for whatever activity you’re planning to do most. Basketball shoes, for example, are designed with side-to-side movements in mind, while running shoes typically are not. Buy from a specialty store where employees have been trained to help guide you (REI is one of the few big-box retailers that does this, Klein says). Because your feet swell as the day goes on, shoe shop in the afternoon or evening for the best fit; you should have half to a full thumb’s width between end of toe and end of shoe, he notes.