Finding an activity that uses all of your body’s muscles — like water skiing — will keep you healthy as you continue to age. (Courtesy photo)

In search of natural gymnasiums

An 80-year-old man came in to see me for his knee pain. He was having trouble with a long-standing knee injury and had finally sought care. What struck me immediately was his appearance. He had the physique of a fit 30 year old: not overly muscled, but a well-shaped and toned body. He moved with grace and with a spring in his step.
“What do you do to keep fit?” I asked with a bit a jealousy.

His story was this: As a middle-aged executive for an international pharmaceutical company, he had accepted a post in Monaco. A friend owned a motorboat, and each morning they would water ski before work. As the man aged, he kept up the activity. In his 70s, he gave up water skiing on a single ski and followed behind the boat for at least 20 minutes a day on two skis. When the seas were very calm, he would go even longer.

Every muscle in his body benefited from water skiing, and it showed. The man simply radiated fitness.

Though having access to a boat and flat water to ski on is available only to a small number of people, the environment around us provides natural gymnasiums everywhere. Finding that hill to climb, that body of water to swim in or that sports field to use is often as simple as looking out the window. Setting a routine to take those opportunities, and doing it every day, creates lifelong fitness.

Equally important is finding activities that, like this man’s sport, use all of your body’s muscles. So many of the injured athletes I see are simply not well-rounded. They go to the gym and train their front muscles — their pecs, biceps and quadriceps — forgetting about their hamstrings, paraspinal muscles and scapular rotators. Those unseen muscles commonly become stiff or injured because they don’t get our attention until they scream with pain.

Likewise, many gym rats focus only on strength, forgetting about balance, coordination, speed and accuracy. These fitness skills are what keep us healthy as we age and protect us from unnecessary falls.

Some of my other patients forget about exercise all together. These sedentary types stew in their own bodies’ juices until the toxins build up and the systems fail. Only exercise — daily exercise — clears the evil humors from the body’s small and large cavities, permitting fresh blood flow to permeate our tissues and keep us healthy.

My patients who play golf once a week, or tennis on occasion, or make it to the gym “every once in a while” wonder where there physiques have gone. My patients who play every day never have to ask that question.

As for my patient, his knee healed, and he sees no reason he can’t be back on the water well into his 90s. For people like him, it’s the new 50.

Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco.

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