Woulda, Coulda, But Shoulda?

  • Perhaps I should start with a confession: I am an aging baby-boomer who still participates in the odd bike race or triathlon. Nothing too serious, mind you. Not enough to ruin my weekends or find me planning vacations around an event, but I do enjoy it. My theory is, without a goal to train towards, it's a lot harder to make yourself get on that bike, get into the weight room, or head to the pool on a cold winter morning. Despite the dangers of pedaling a bike at 25 miles an hour surrounded by dozens of others and protected only by some lycra, I feel like I can balance the risk and reward and still come down on the side of health.

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    Which brings us to my point- Is jumping out of an airplane at the age of 80 a good idea or a bad idea? Is climbing Mt. Everest at the age of 70 an impressive feat? How about running a marathon on two total knee replacements? Or what do you make of Bo Jackson playing major league baseball after a total hip replacement? Even more recently, how about Denny Hamlin driving a race car at close to 200 miles an hour, ten days after knee ligament reconstruction? Medical science, especially my field of orthopaedics, has become so advanced that because we can do something, we often do. I'm just not sure we should.


    I spend a lot of time talking to my patients not only about exercise but health. Not all exercise is created equal. For athletes, and especially master's athletes, some exercises is just plain too hard on your body (not to mention dangerous!).


    With the baby boom generation leading the way, the 20% of the population that is staying active is often taking it to the next, and not necessarily healthy, level. While doing some running races and short triathlons are generally good for you, marathons, ultra-marathons, and iron-man triathlons are rarely a positive for general health. For many years my friends and I would station ourselves at mile 25 of the Boston Marathon. Except for the first fifteen or so men and women professionals, the rest of the thousands looked like they were finishing the Bhutan Death March!


    Remember, most of these folks are terrific runners finishing in less than three hours. Where they might look great after a 10K race, after a marathon, they looked awful. This tells me running 26 miles is not healthy, it's physical punishment. There's a difference between being tired from an effort and being so exhausted that you cause injury. For the majority of people, training and running a marathon crosses that line.


    So back to our other list of abusers. George Bush, Sr. was sky-diving at 85 years old. Probably a bad idea, but he had every (and I mean every!) precaution that the average sky-diver doesn't. For the runner with knee replacements - if you have joint replacements, the less pounding, the better. In other words, don't run! Bo Jackson - he had his hip replacement redone ("revised") four years after the first and now does archery for sport. The 70-year-old mountaineer? He made it to the summit of Everest and died that night in base camp.


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    All of these people were fit for their age group. With training and in some cases, good orthopaedic doctors, they were able to do these activities. But should they? If George Bush broke a hip, would it have been worth it? Is Bo Jackson content shooting arrows from his porch? Would our friend from Everest do it again if he knew it was truly the last thing he would do? Do you want to be on the track with Denny Hamlin knowing his reflexes aren't their usual, only 10 days after surgery?


    Yes, we can do a lot of things with our aging and surgically repaired bodies. That doesn't mean we should.

    And it certainly doesn't mean it's healthy.


    Dr. Daniel O'Neill, M.D., Ed.D, F.A.A.O.S. is an Orthopaedic Surgeon, Sports Psychologist, and founding member of The Alpine Clinic based in Franconia New Hampshire.


Published On: May 17, 2010