Staying Power: Rules for Keeping Fit As You Age
You can’t keep fit with just tennis. Follow these four rules to stay in shape for the court.
By Alyssa Shaffer
Plenty of Betty Cookson’s neighbors in her northern California senior residence hold canes and walkers. But the spry 86-year-old is far more likely to be seen gripping a tennis racquet. Last year, she and her 93-year-old doubles partner, Dodo Cheney, won all four USTA Senior National Championships in their age division. “I love the game,” says Cookson, who first picked up a racquet in 1935 and has competed in senior divisions for the past 46 years. “Being out there helps keep me moving and feeling young.”
Staying active as you grow older is one of the best things you can do to fight Father Time. Studies have shown that physical activity can protect against cancer, heart disease, dementia and other ailments associated with age. And it’s never too late to start. One recent study found that men who began exercising in their 50s garnered the same health benefits as they would from quitting smoking. Another found that physical activity can help ease some symptoms of menopause.
“As you get older, you start to lose muscle, reaction time and aerobic conditioning,” says Dr. Walter Ettinger, president of the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center and the co-author of Fitness After 50.” The great thing about tennis is that it addresses all of those concerns.”
To stay healthy on and off the court, follow these four simple rules.
RULE 1: ALWAYS WARM UP
Getting your muscles ready for exercise can take a little longer as we age, says Scott McTeer, a former touring pro and owner of McTeer Fitness Training in Austin, Texas. “A lot of us just get right into playing, which can lead to injury because the muscles and joints aren't ready for that stress.”
You don't need to spend a ton of time warming up: Even just a 5-minute walk or jog will elevate your heart rate and body temperature and get blood flowing to your muscles. By the end of your warm-up, you should be sweating lightly.
RULE 2: STRETCH IT OUT
Once you’re warm, take a few more minutes to do some dynamic stretching. “Your connective tissues lose some of their elasticity with age, so it’s important to work on increasing your flexibility,” says Ron Woods, Ph.D., a performance coach at the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Fla. Dynamic stretching, or stretching as you move, is the best way to prepare for play, because it warms up the same muscles you’ll be using on court. Take about 5 minutes to do some toe and heel walks (walk across the court, first on your toes, then on your heels), forward and backward arm circles, wrist circles, trunk rotations and high knees (like in the photo at right). After you’ve put your racquet down, use the post-play period to do some traditional static stretching, focusing on tight spots like your hamstrings, shoulders and lower back.
RULE 3: MIND YOUR MUSCLES
Starting at about age 45, muscle mass begins to decline at a rate of about 1 percent per year. If you don’t do anystrength training, you could lose about 30 percent of your muscle tissue by the time you’re 75. “The bad news is as we age, we gain fat and lose muscle. The good news is we can maintain our strength—we just have to work a little harder at it,” says Josie Gardiner, a Boston-based trainer who, at age 63, plays tennis up to six days a week.
While tennis helps strengthen muscles and joints, you still need to do some supplemental training to make sure you stay strong, healthy and competitive. Aim to do at least two total-body strength sessions a week targeting your major muscle groups (back, arms, shoulders, legs and butt). Working the muscles along the back of your body is especially important, Gardiner says, because they’re the ones that will help you decelerate as you reach the ball.
RULE 4: BETTER YOUR BALANCE
When you’re young, you take your ability to maintain your balance for granted. “Your sense of proprioception, or how you perceive your body’s movement through space, starts to diminish with age,” Gardiner says. That means it’s easier to misstep, whether on court or at home, and take a tumble. Do some simple balance drills a few times a week, such as standing on one leg as you talk on the phone or pretending to walk a tightrope as you head across the room.
Staying active can help you avert many of the health problems that come with age, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to play like you always have. “The reality is that if you’re playing aggressive, competitive tennis in your 50s, 60s and 70s, you have to make some concessions,” says Dr. Raymond Rocco Monto, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. “In part that means taking time to do exercises that prevent injuries, even when you’d rather be on the court.” Here are five exercises that you can do at home that will keep you ready to hit the court as you get older. Do two to three sets of each move on nonconsecutive days three times a week.
1. EXTERNAL ROTATION
Strengthens the rotator cuff. Tie one end of a stretchy band to a doorknob or post and stand so the doorknob is to your left. With your elbow bent 90 degrees, hold the loose end of the band in your right hand so the band is taut. Press your upper arm and elbow into your side and hold your forearm straight in front of you with your palm facing left. Keep your elbow tucked close to your side and slowly pull your forearm out to the right as far as you can. Hold for one second and slowly return to the starting position. Repeat 8–10 times. Switch sides and repeat.
2. INTERNAL ROTATION
Strengthens the rotator cuff. Set up as in the previous exercise, standing to the left of the doorknob, but hold the band with your left hand so the band is taut. Bend your elbow 90 degrees and make sure your palm is facing right. Keeping your upper arm and elbow against your left side, pull the band to the right, across your abdomen. Hold for one second and return to the starting position. Repeat 8–10 times. Switch sides and repeat.
3. SINGLE-LEG SQUAT
Strengthens glutes and thighs and improves balance. Stand on your right foot with your left foot behind you so your shin is parallel with the floor (if you need to, support yourself by holding the back of a chair). Keeping your posture upright, slowly bend your right knee, lowering until your right knee is just over your toes, no farther. Stand back up. Repeat 8–10 times. Switch sides and repeat.
4. OBLIQUE CRUNCH
Strengthens the core. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor, then let your legs fall to the left so your knees rest near the floor. Gently cradle your head and neck in your hands. Curl up slowly, tightening your abdominal muscles, until you’ve lifted both shoulders a few inches off the floor. Hold for two seconds. Slowly lower to the floor and repeat 10–12 times. Switch sides and repeat.
Strengthens legs. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your weight slightly on your heels. Place your hands on your hips (or on the back of a chair for support). Tighten your abdominal muscles and step forward with your right foot. Bend both knees until your right thigh is parallel to the floor and your left thigh is perpendicular to it (go halfway if you feel discomfort). Your left heel will lift off the floor. Don’t let your right knee go past your toes. Push into your right foot and step back to the starting position. Alternate legs until you complete 8–10 repetitions on each side. Rest 30 seconds between sets.—DANA SULLIVAN
As you get older, your metabolism slows and your body requires fewer calories. But that doesn’t mean you need fewer nutrients. “You have to get the most out of your calories,” says Ruth Frechman, a Los Angeles-based dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. That means eating nutrient-rich foods. Another reason you need foods high in nutrients is that as bodies age, they absorb and process vitamins and minerals less efficiently. Here are some recommendations to make sure your diet is doing all it can for you.
What You Need
Why You Need It
How To Get It
|Calcium||After 50, the government’s recommendation for calcium intake increases from 1,000 milligrams per day to 1,200 to keep bones strong. Weight-bearing exercise also helps increase bone density, so keep up the tennis.||Have milk, yogurt or low-fat cheese, or take a calcium supplement if you’re lactose intolerant, which is more common in older adults.|
|Carbohydrates||Carbs are important for active people of every age, but older adults should eat whole grains that are high in fiber to prevent the risk of heart disease, and potassium to regulate blood pressure.||Eat fruits like bananas, oranges and kiwi for potassium, and vegetables, whole grains or a supplement for fiber.|
|Fluids||Many people don’t feel thirst as much as they get older, according to the National Institutes of Health, so it’s especially important for older adults who are active to stay hydrated, even if they’re not thirsty.||Aim to drink 2 liters of liquid a day. When you play, drink 16–20 ounces of water within the two hours before you hit the court, 4–8 ounces on breaks during play, and 20 ounces of water or an electrolyte drink after.|
|Vitamin B12||The government recommendation for B12 stays the same after 50, but the body has less acid to help it absorb.||Eat any animal product or take a Vitamin B12 supplement.|
|Vitamin D||Older adults are more susceptible to Vitamin D deficiency because the skin has less ability to synthesize the nutrient and the kidneys are less able to process it. The government recommendation for Vitamin D rises from 5 micrograms to 10 per day after age 50 and to 15 micrograms after 70.||Drink Vitamin D-fortified milk or orange juice, eat fish and get some sun while you play tennis to synthesize the nutrient in your body.—SARAH UNKE|
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of TENNIS magazine.