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Health: When Racquetball Becomes a Stretch



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Oh no, doc! Not chondromalacia patella!

Say it ain't so. Does this mean my racquetball-playing days are kaput? That at 56 I'm over the hill just because I've got chondromalacia patella (aching knees) and discogenic derangement (lower back pain) and strained iliotibial bands (throbbing hip muscles) for a day or two after an hour's worth of all-out matches?

And what about the old ticker, or, in scientific terms, the heart? It's a muscle, too. If everything else is breaking down, is it wearing out, too? Is that why the East Cobb YMCA, where I work out, has an automated external defibrillator designed to electrically jolt hearts back into regular rhythm if someone suffers sudden cardiac arrest?

There are 31 million baby boomers ages 50 to 57, and there's little doubt that a high percentage of us --- like my racquetball buddies, Mariettans John Buick and Fred Salmons, both 56, and Ted Daywalt, 55 --- are asking such questions.

John and Ted wear knee braces, Fred slips on strong, elastic hip supports, and I often don knee braces as well as a thingamabob on my forearm to ward off tendinitis. Like President Bush, we're all on glucosamine, an over-the-counter supplement that supposedly helps repair the cartilage that cushions our joints. And we all smear on smelly ointments and keep our cabinets well-stocked with nonprescription pain pills.

It's no wonder a lot of folks in this age group, men and women, are seeing psychiatrists --- terrified and often depressed that our aches and pains are forcing us to face still another of life's psychological passages. Has the time come to take up activities that are easier on the body, like golf or shuffleboard?

There are a lot of miles on the chassis, but mentally, we don't feel old.

Thankfully, the simple answer is no, we don't have to retire to the sidelines of life. In fact, it's much more dangerous for aging boomers --- and most other folks who are reasonably healthy --- not to exercise than it is to exert ourselves, says Dr. Steven Manoukian, an Atlanta cardiologist.

And Dr. Jeffrey Nugent, an Atlanta orthopedic surgeon who spent years taking care of players on the Atlanta Braves and Falcons teams, says most aches and pains of his fifty- and sixtysomething patients can be remedied by stretching exercises. It's just important to remember, he adds, that it's going to get harder and harder to do what we did with ease in the past.

Daywalt sums up how the Y gang feels.

"I'm going to play until I can't stand up on the court," he says.

Adds Buick: "I've had one knee operated on, and I'll have the other done if I have to."

And Salmons, who's run eight or so Peachtree Road Races, isn't ready to concede that the Grim Reaper has gained a few steps on him.

"It hurts, but I'm not quitting," he says.

That's what I say, too, though my wife says differently. She nagged me into giving up softball a few years ago --- which I'd also vowed never to quit --- because I kept pulling my hamstrings and quadriceps. I quit only after I fell flat on my face trying to beat out a grounder to first base (I was embarrassed but safe). And now my wife's been rolling her eyes more and more lately when I come home from racquetball.

In desperation, I went to see Jennifer Bebko, the YMCA's 30-year-old wellness instructor who was a master trainer in the Army. "You don't have to quit racquetball," she says. "But you do need to do stretching, and you've got to work on those hamstrings and quadriceps to get them looser. Everything's connected."

She orders me to sit on the floor, puts her hands on my back and tells me to touch my toes.

I can't come close. She pushes. It hurts.

So do other exercises she puts me through and gently tells me to learn.

"It's going to hurt to play until you do these regularly," she says.

Like me, my buddies don't like stretching (the consensus: It's boring) and none of us enjoy any of the dozens of exercise devices I call "Inquisition machines" that look like torture racks.

For now, we've all vowed to take our glucosamine and stretch a little more because we enjoy the intense one-on-one competition, the chance to beat somebody at something.

This impulse isn't unique to men, but scientists say males of all species have evolved to need competition more than women. It goes back to our caveman roots.

There's also a sense of camaraderie to be shared with other guys in the same age range who come together to push themselves physically, then swap stories about our aches and pains.

Are we crazy?

No, or so our doctors say --- if not our wives.

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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