Pulse: Health: Frame Job

Bones and muscles wear out long before other body parts. Fortunately, there are ways to stay young

Thanks to remarkable medical advances, we can all expect to live longer and healthier lives than our parents. Heart disease can be managed; sunscreens keep our skin supple; even many cancers are now viewed as conditions, not death sentences. The problem with living into our 80s? The bones, muscles and tendons that take us where we need to go are engineered to last only about half that long.  “The warranty on our frame expires at around 40 years,” says Havertown-based Dr. Nick DiNubile, the orthopedic consultant to the Pennsylvania Ballet and the Sixers. “The number one cause for doctor visits in this country is some kind of musculo-skeletal ailment. But we could prevent a lot of problems we end up spending billions treating.”

DiNubile is the guy who coined the word “boomer-itis,” a catchall phrase for the bursitis, tendonitis, arthritis and fix-me-itis afflicting all those baby boomers hell-bent on staying young. It’s an uphill battle, because our frames were certainly not intelligently designed for the loads they bear. Our spines are too weak for upright walking; the bones in our feet are too small to support our weight. Aging robs the joints of lubrication, hardens ligaments and weakens the skeleton, making us all prone to injuries from wear and tear. That’s the bad news. The good news is that DiNubile has written a breezy and useful little book called FrameWork that’s a blueprint for avoiding pain and working around weak spots.

Dr. Nick says we get in trouble exercising when we push our bodies beyond their limits, failing to understand that we can’t do at 50 what we did at 30. Most people also have unbalanced workouts, because we favor what we do well or what we like, which leads to over-training and excesses that cause injuries. For example, if you’re addicted to aerobics, you’re probably shortchanging strengthening. If you love weight-­lifting, you probably don’t do enough stretching, which is critical for a healthy frame. Fortunately, DiNubile has crafted some rules that can help correct those imbalances — and keep you out of his office.

» Embrace cross-training.

Vary your workout so you aren’t stressing the same body parts over and over. Let one muscle group recover while you increase demand on something else. If you’re an avid runner, tennis nut or golfer, add another sport to your repertoire that exercises something different. This applies to young athletes as well. Retired baseball player Cal Ripken, one of several celebrity friends who wrote endorsements for FrameWork, makes his son put away his glove after the season and play some other game so he doesn’t ruin his arm.

» Balance is the key.

Muscles need to be worked both front and back — biceps followed by triceps; quads along with hamstrings. Too many athletes worry about what DiNubile dubs “mirror muscles,” or building the bulges reflected in the mirror. The overload creates weakness in the corresponding part. Total body balance is also something we neglect. As adults, we lose agility and become prone to accidental falls. It’s important to do some kind of daily balancing exercise, like standing on each leg for 30 seconds in the stork position — one foot on the floor, and the other raised against your knee forming the letter P. Do it with your eyes closed. It’s a lot harder than it sounds.

» Slow down.

Many muscle pulls and tears come from lifting too quickly. DiNubile recommends lifting weights in a controlled motion in one or two sets of up to 12 reps each. That takes away the momentum and allows you to get as much benefit from the lowering as the raising.

To identify your body’s strength’s and weaknesses, log on to drnick.com and take FrameWork’s self-test. Then you can fix your workout so somebody like Dr. DiNubile doesn’t wind up having to fix your body.