How Much Exercise Is Too Much?

His shaven head glistening with sweat, Jeff springs from a lunge position and rams into my stomach. I hit the ground with a ka-thunk, and he drops onto my chest. We tussle. He cocks his right leg (the one with the scorpion tattoo on the calf) and stabs his knee into my ribs. I let out an oomph, and retaliate by clasping my hands behind his neck and squeezing down as hard as I can. We've been at it for nearly three minutes. Sweat seeps from every pore, soaking the mat. My heart is pounding, and I'm gasping for air. Jeff breaks free of the headlock. He jumps up, lunges again, crashing into me like a 220-pound brick. We roll several yards, arms and legs flailing, each trying to tie the other in a knot. Just as I think I can't go another second, the bell rings. We take a one-minute break. And then start all over again.

I know darned well that I'll have a hard time getting out of bed the next morning.

I'm not asking for pity. I do martial arts, which includes "grappling," of my own free will. For whatever bizarre psychological reasons, I like it. So what if my regular opponent outweighs me by 20 pounds? I have 20 years on him. Fair is fair.

Sometimes though, seriously, I wonder just how hard a 50-year-old, father-of-two, sometimes financial planner, sometimes book author and magazine journalist, should be pushing himself. My inevitable injuries don't seem to be healing as fast as they once did -- I have a shoulder that has been hurting for two months now, ever since Jeff decided one afternoon to bend that arm into a pretzel. My wind isn't what it once was. And when my dad was just a few years older than I am now, he had his first balloon angioplasty. Perhaps what I'm doing doesn't only look idiotic -- maybe it really is idiotic.

Should I give up the martial arts and perhaps take up tennis? Shuffle board? B-I-N-G-O?

First, I'm going to do some research.

Before I share that research with you, let me warn those of you born prior to 1965 or so that what you're about to see isn't all joyous. "There are inevitable degenerative processes that occur after a certain age. That's why you don't see many professional athletes over 40; the body simply can't take the abuse," says Gerald Varlotta, D.O., director of sports rehabilitation at the NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases and the Rusk Institute in New York City.

Those degenerative processes include (I'll keep this list short so that older readers don't get too depressed) ...

• Muscles shrink and lose mass

• Joint tendons lose water, making them less flexible and more susceptible to stress

• The heart becomes less able to pump blood quickly

• Bones become less dense, more breakable

• Cartilage starts to break down, and knees, shoulders and elbows become more easily inflamed

"The good news is that much of this process can be delayed with regular exercise -- although exercising in the wrong way can backfire," says Dr. Varlotta.

Uh-oh. It sounds like the medicine man may be telling me to give up martial arts. So I ask him point blank. "It's okay to have a 25-year-old mind in a 50-year-old body, but we sometimes need to lower our expectations," says Dr. Varlotta, matter-of-factly, as he reveals himself to be roughly the same age I am. "We need to use our wisdom and apply it to our physical well-being. And that means exercising smart, sometimes going slow, and being especially cautious of any discomfort."

With that wisdom and restraint, says my stethoscoped contemporary, the middle-aged athlete -- while he or she is unlikely to win world events -- can sometimes shock the world.

Below a few tips from Dr. Varlotta and others on smart exercise for those 40+ ... .

Check your heart. Over 40? Get a complete physical before embarking on any vigorous exercise program -- that's especially true if you, like me, have any family history of heart disease. Know the signs of heart trouble -- which include, but are not limited to chest pain, dizziness, and palpitations -- and call your doctor right away if any occur. (For a more complete listing, see

Don't jump the gun. "The biggest problem for many 40 and 50 year olds (who have not been exercising) have is trying to do everything too quickly. An hour a day of unaccustomed exercise will almost certainly result in some kind of problem -- more likely if they've had a previous injury (knee injury, ankle sprain, shoulder problem, etc.)," says James G. Garrick, M.D., a 70-year-old orthopedic surgeon who for the past 28 years has headed the Centers for Sports Medicine at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco. "Start any new exercise program gradually."

Plan to be consistent. "If you're really serious about getting in shape, and staying in shape, it will usually require a commitment of three to four days a week, minimum, every week," says Dr. Garrick.

Maybe put the glory days behind you. The more you exercise, the more fit you'll become ... up to a point. But you'll eventually reach a plateau. Like it or not (probably not), "That plateau will usually occur at a lower level decade by decade," says Dr. Varlotta. If, a very long time ago, you were an extremely sportive 20-year-old, you might be better off forgetting about that six-minute mile. That's gone the way of the 20-cent candy bar, and you may only get frustrated trying to relive your great athletic feats of yesteryear.

Shake it up! "Doing the same thing over and over again isn't recommended for any aged person; it's especially important for older adults to cross-train," says Joan Price, 62, California fitness pro, and author of the Anytime Anywhere Exercise Book (available from "You want to do aerobic exercise, strength-training, and something for flexibility, as well" she says. "And incorporate as many varied activities as you can. If you do, say, kick boxing or weight-training one day, do perhaps yoga or Pilates the next."

Seek gain without pain. In answer to the question I asked in the headline to this story, "No pain, no gain," is NOT a good mantra, says Price. "It's never healthy; but especially not healthy for the older exerciser whose body is more prone to injury."

Pick up a leash. As long as you've been given a clean bill of health by your doctor, there's no reason that you can't work out till the sweat is pouring and you're breathing like a locomotive. But studies show that there isn't any great health benefit, either. The great majority of health benefits derived from exercise -- including prevention of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes -- can be had with only moderate, but regular exercise. "We don't even use the word 'exercise' a lot; we talk instead about physical activity," says Jack Higgins, M.D., a family physician in Palo Alto, California, and a spokesdoc for Fifty-Plus Lifelong Fitness (, a fitness advocacy group. "It's important to do something physical every day," he says, "but that doesn't mean you have to dress up in Spandex and huff and puff. ... Mow the lawn, wash your car, work in the garden," says Dr. Higgins. "One of the best things you can do is to get a dog and take it for long walks every day."

Engage in the right sports. "If you do want to play sports, pick one that suits you," says Dr. Higgins, 58, an avid cyclist and hiker. Bad knees? Running probably isn't for you. Bad elbows? Forget tennis. If you're still interesting in competition sports, consider as well your particular body type. There's a good reason that there aren't many Yamashitas playing professional basketball.

Count to six. Should you experience any sharp pain while exercising, see a doctor. But even modest pain, or limited range of motion, should be checked after six weeks, says Dr. Varlotta. "Sometimes, if might require a simple cortisone shot to ease the inflammation; sometimes, it might require more aggressive action."

Play with people your own age. Just as you shouldn't compare what you can do at 55 to what you might have been able to do at 25, it might be equally discouraging if you surround yourself with nothing but athletic youngsters, says Dr. Higgins. He suggests that if I ever get discouraged grappling with Jeff (not yet), that I find somebody my own age to compete with. "Maybe seek out a martial arts school that caters to older adults."

So I called John Martin, head of the Combat Arts Institute in Palatine, Illinois, to ask for his thoughts. He's a black belt in ju-jutsu, teaching since 1980. He's about my age. Martin admits his body isn't as resilient as it once was -- in fact, his shoulder has been bothering him, too. But he sees no reason that either he or I need to stop practicing martial arts. He adds, however, that I do need to be careful a bit more careful. "Don't let pride and ego get in the way of your intelligence. Sometimes, if you're hurting, you may just have to take it easy. After all, life is meant to be enjoyed, not suffered."

Hey, Jeff? Are you there? Are you listening? "Enjoyed, not suffered," the man said. Let go of that arm! Ouch! Down boy. Down.


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