Majorie Walk Soloman writer
Why does the Baby Boom generation think it’s so different from previous generations? It does seem sometimes that boomers feel entitled, and act as if they’re completely unique. Well, here’s news: There might be some sound reasons for the self-interested way that baby boomers behave.
First of all, it turns out that the baby boomers are not a single generation at all. Instead, they’re an enormous collective, spanning multiple generations and encompassing everyone born between 1946 and 1964. The US Census Bureau counted 78.2 million baby boomers in 2005. The baby boomers came of age in a culture that—for the duration of their lifetimes—has prized and essentially worshipped youth and beauty, along with physical prowess and fitness.
In many ways, the baby boomers are living healthier and more wellness-oriented lifestyles than previous generations. Additionally, they’re living longer. Advances in diagnostics and preventive medicine—along with a myriad selection of clubs, classes, and sophisticated sports gear from which to choose—enable baby boomers to “play” long into their adult lives; essentially, to act much younger than their years. Couple this with the host of new cosmetics products and procedures that have become available, and it becomes clear that the baby boomers really are (and will continue to be) different from their parents and grandparents. They look younger, and can stay active far later in their lives than their predecessors could.
Along with their interest in (and let’s be honest, perhaps their obsession with) health and wellness, many baby boomers are working long hours, caring for their children and grandchildren, and taking responsibility for aging parents. The obvious irony is that although medicine and high technology enable the baby boomers to seem younger than ever, they are, of course, aging at precisely the same rate as past generations. Although pop culture, medicine, and technology combine (and perhaps conspire) to make baby boomers look, feel and behave in many ways as if they have turned back the clock, aging is still something that even the “can-do” baby boomers cannot avoid!
Staying in the Game
The oldest baby boomers are now entering their 60s and the youngest are in their 40s, so this group is now feeling the effects of aging on their joints, exhibiting the many aches, pains and ailments that have always been characteristic of the human body as it wears out. The catch of course is that the baby boomers are not ready for this sometimes painful transition, and they’re fighting the natural aging process with all the (substantial) resources they can muster. At the gym, in the doctor’s office, while at work and at home, baby boomers are investing tremendous amounts of time, energy and money into the resistance, proving stubbornly (much like teenagers) that they’re very different from their parents and grandparents.
Doctors, athletic trainers, and physical therapists all say that the most active boomers are developing tears and fractures, experiencing arthritis and tendonitis, struggling with herniated discs and osteoporosis, and in general, aggravating old sports injuries anew simply by staying “in the game” as long as they can. The pattern of athletic trauma is so prevalent in baby boomers that the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) has come up with a special name for it, grouping both the baby boomers’ propensity for sports injuries and the sports injuries themselves into a single category called “Boomeritis.”
“The boomers are a demanding group,” says John Inacio, co-owner of Middlesex Rehabilitation Associates, a physical therapist and certified athletic trainer with twenty-six years of experience, and a baby boomer himself. “Lots of boomers grew up with managed care. We don’t want to slow down as we age, and we don’t want to live with pain. We have an injury: We want it fixed! Boomers need to remember that it takes a lot less physical stress to irritate aging joints, and longer for aging bodies to recover.”
Wellesley resident Dr. Bill Mitchell, an orthopedic surgeon at New England Baptist Hospital and the former team physician to the Boston Celtics, specializes in athletic trauma and sees many Boomeritis patients. “Boomeritis is a new title for a problem that’s long been recognized by sports medicine specialists,” he explains. “We used to call people who worked out ‘weekend warriors.’ But this is a more active generation that’s more aware of the health benefits of exercise. Because a larger volume of adults participate in health and fitness activities than ever before, we’re seeing patterns of injury related to overuse in joints—bone, muscle, tendon, and cartilage—that they’d previously injured, or in joints no longer able to sustain high levels of physical stress…due to variations in anatomy and cellular changes that come with age.”
So now what’s to be done? Should the baby boomers hang up their cleats and racquets, becoming couch potatoes for the rest of their lives? Absolutely not, Dr. Mitchell says. “There are lots of good reasons for baby boomers to work out. Looking fit, losing weight, having a better quality of life, and for some, a social outlet. If you’re sedentary, your joints will be bound up. You won’t be able to participate safely in activities, and you won’t be able to advance to more complex ones. Some form of exercise is a prescription for all boomers, but you are certainly vulnerable to injury if your activity is too repetitive or specific.”
Weston resident Dr. Tom Gill, an orthopedic surgeon in the Sports Medicine Service at Massachusetts General Hospital, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School, and the Medical Director for both the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots teams, shares this view. “People who are active stay healthy longer from a cardiovascular standpoint,” he points out. “There’s clearly a psychological benefit to staying active, too. Working out and participating in sports helps people blow off steam, and gets their competitive juices flowing.” Dr. Gill echoes the idea that modification, not the termination of activity, is the right idea. “Don’t overdo any one sport,” he says. “Work out, but don’t get plugged into any one kind of exercise.”
The prevailing wisdom seems to be that active baby boomers stay healthier all around. Dr. Ken Polivy, an orthopedic surgeon at Newton Wellesley Orthopedic Associates and an associate clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at the Tufts University School of Medicine, sums it up: “For healthy adults, there are no contraindications to being active,” he says. For baby boomers though, there’s a caveat: “Just don’t do it with reckless abandon.”
Don’t Get Sidelined
Doctors, physical therapists, and trainers all agree that experiencing some level of joint soreness and stiffness — especially if you’re active — is normal with age. So how do baby boomers know when they’re experiencing Boomeritis?
Dr. Polivy says that “normal, baseline soreness from a workout should resolve itself in twenty-four to seventy-two hours. You’re probably going to feel the most stiff about forty-eight hours after a workout.” He suggests that active boomers stretch and drink plenty of water to try and keep post-workout stiffness to a minimum. Then he offers some sage, boomer-to-boomer advice: “The key to staying injury-free is to stay in shape, and to warm up appropriately for each activity. And remember: If it hurts, back off.”
Dr. Gill stresses that in baby boomers, things like our shoulders—the shoulder muscles and tendons together are called the rotator cuff—are built for normal wear and tear, but time takes its toll. “Three or four hours a day of tennis may be okay when you’re in your 20s or 30s” he says, “but it’s not okay when you’re over 50.”
Sometimes surgery is the best option for injured baby boomers. More conservative treatments like cortisone shots, ice, and physical therapy can sometimes help, and exercise modifications are imperative for athletic baby boomers. “If you’re a tennis player and your shoulder hurts, you don’t necessarily have to stop playing,” says Dr. Gill. “You can try hitting ground strokes for awhile, instead of serving.” John Inacio points to walking rather than running as a modification that boomers should consider. ‘When you run,” he says, “you put four-to-five times your body weight onto each foot. But when you walk, you put only one-and-a-half-times your weight down.” The consensus is that baby boomers need to think about changing the ways they work out; they certainly don’t have to stop. “Use moderation and definitely cross-train,” says Dr. Gill.
Managing Boomeritis: Knowledge is Power!
With sophisticated diagnostic techniques (Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI) and surgical interventions (arthroscopy and high-tech hip and knee replacements, for example), baby boomers have a number of options at hand. To some extent, baby boomers can control what’s happening in their physical lives; that’s something that appeals immensely to this particular population. Before making any decisions, embarking on or modifying your exercise program, all of the experts advise starting with a doctor, who may prescribe diagnostic tests or refer you to the right professional (an athletic trainer, conditioning coach, or physical therapist, for example).
“We can train to protect our bodies against stress or overuse injury (Boomeritis),” says Dr. Mitchell. “There’s an exercise program that’s appropriate for each body type and always, taking a holistic approach is better than doing one activity. Include the proper diet, look at your target Body Mass Index (BMI), combine a program of muscle toning, aerobic activities, and resistive training. Focus on activities that develop core strength, like Pilates. You can build flexibility with Yoga, and use free (non-machine) weights which, along with resistive methods, are best at the beginning because you’re less injury-prone that way. Use latex bands, weighted balls, and your own body weight. Baby boomers, like all athletes, should definitely learn to use their bodies in space. Work on balance, agility, flexibility, strength, and endurance. Be sure if you’re taking a class that it’s at the appropriate level; physical training should be highly customized for each individual.”
Baby boomers should not ignore the nutritional aspects of their lifestyle, either. Dr. Gill says “You can’t get toned if you’re eating the wrong foods. A combination of fish, chicken, and red meat is great for protein; just don’t eat it every night. You need veggies too…but if you go with veggies only, you may lose muscle mass. Don’t get into a rut when you eat, or when you work out.” Dr. Gill suggests that women in the boomer group do more load-bearing exercises, to keep bones strong and prevent fractures. “Swim, bike, play tennis, jog lightly or power walk. Try to do things that keep your feet on the ground. Yoga can help with stretching, but in all cases listen to your body, and ‘do it differently’ if something hurts.” Baseball, softball, and squash are all good load-bearing options for baby boomers, too.
Doctors and trainers agree that good aerobic exercise (following the American Heart Association’s guidelines) is critical. Your goal as a baby boomer is to keep aging muscles and bones strong, and build stamina. In addition, many people find that a regular exercise program is a great way to reduce stress in their lives. Doctors advise baby boomers to get an overall health assessment before starting any exercise program, and stress that even if you’re not athletic, you should see a sports medicine expert. The best advice about Boomeritis will come from individuals who work with athletes, and whose area of expertise is the prevention and treatment of soft-tissue injuries, the very ones you want to avoid.