As the Olympics begin, as they do every four years, with an international broadcast of opening ceremonies, health experts expect the games will inspire couch potatoes to become more active.
However, experts caution amateurs, particularly sedentary ones,
not to jump into a new sports activity without sufficient
"These athletes make it look way too easy," said Dr. Pietro Tonino, a Chicago-based orthopedic surgeon, "and people need to understand that most of them have been practicing their sport since they were young. Olympic athletes have been strengthening their muscles and bones for years in order to tolerate the abnormal stresses that occur during the sport. The body needs time to adapt to such rigorous activity,” Tonino said.
"It's very motivating. It's exciting that people are more interested in getting out and doing something after watching the Olympics," he added, “but sedentary people have to be realistic about taking on a new athletic endeavor. It's very important for people to look at themselves and make sure they're in good health," he said. "If you don't spend time conditioning yourself for a new sport, you’ll wind up in my office very soon. If it's any consolation, even Olympic hopefuls can get hurt, regardless of their training.”
"Even our athletes aren't immune to injuries," said Dr. Jeffrey Housner, team physician for the University of Michigan and USA Hockey teams, and volunteer doctor for the United States Olympic Committee. He spoke from the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs where he was spending two weeks treating injured athletes. “About 25 to 30 athletes come to the clinic daily for treatment of various sport-related injuries,” Housner added. “Swimmers tend to suffer from shoulder injuries. Volleyball and basketball players have problems with their Achilles tendon, the knees or acute injuries to the ankle. Gymnasts have wrist injuries.”
Housner recommends recreational athletes begin slowly when starting a new activity or resuming a sport. "Start low and go slow is the famous phrase," he said. He suggested people start a sport at the minimum level and advance at no more than 10 percent each week. Unfortunately, enthusiasm for new beginnings means that many people ignore this suggestion. “If they ignore it, they will pay for it down the road,” he said.
“Typically,” Housner said, “someone in their late 30's jumps into an activity they might have done in college, like running, but trains with the same intensity as when they were 20. At first he's fine,” Housner said, "but a couple of months into training, you can pick a joint, and he's developed a problem. His body can no longer take the training he's doing." Instead of running in a marathon, the would-be athlete finds himself limping into the doctor's office with a stress fracture that will take several months to heal.
Housner strongly recommended that anyone interested in being active initially embark on a program that builds strength and flexibility of their muscles, especially core muscles. “Stretching is key for sedentary people resuming activity,” according to New York City fitness trainer Renee Daniels who specializes in medical exercise. "If your muscles are tight, which is usually the case, and you start to do all this new activity, there's a good chance you're going to pull a muscle," she said. "Stretching and strengthening all the major muscle groups, especially the primary muscles used in the activity, is very important."
According to a recent report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Division, in 2003 more than 7 million sports injuries were treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms, doctors' offices, clinics and ambulatory surgery centers. Basketball injuries were the most common (1.6 million injuries) followed by cycling accidents (1.3 million), football (one million), soccer (456,000), baseball (417,479), and swimming/diving (364,116).
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