U.S. Markets closed

Are You Too Old for Your Favorite Sport?

Ruben Castaneda

For about 30 years, Joe Raffa enjoyed playing full-court pickup basketball. Though he wasn't a great athlete, Raffa liked the exercise, teamwork and camaraderie with his fellow players. Raffa, at the time a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy, picked up the game relatively late in life, in the 1970s, when he was in his mid-40s.

But his time on the court was cut short when his body began to break down. In 1996, a ruptured disc in his neck -- caused by lifting something from the trunk of his car years earlier -- forced him to retire from the sheriff's department. Raffa's doctor told him that if he got into a scuffle on the court and his neck turned the wrong way, he could be paralyzed.

A New Game

Reluctantly, Raffa gave up the game he loved. But he didn't give up on sports and exercise. Raffa moved to Carlsbad, California, a seaside city in northern San Diego County. He joined a senior softball league, age 50 and up. Unlike full-court basketball, which has continuous action, the exercise in softball is episodic; unless you're the pitcher, batter or catcher, you're in the field, waiting for a ball to be hit your way. And that's fine by Raffa, who's been playing softball for more than 15 years now.

"It's just as good socially," Raffa says. "It's not as active as basketball -- you run when you run, not all the time. At age 75, I'm not going to be running sprints or up and down a basketball court. Without softball, I'd be sitting on the couch like a potato."

As they get older, many weekend warriors who play team sports such as basketball and soccer, plus athletes who engage in solitary physical pursuits like weightlifting and running, need to adjust their routine and consider whether it's time to hang up their sneakers or cleats. Feet, knees, elbows, shoulders and necks wear down. Backs and joints start to hurt and become stiffer, particularly after vigorous workouts.

[See: 9 Sports Injuries That Sideline Kids.]

Aging and Transitions

"From high school to college to beyond, you're in transition from what you were to what you are," says Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, an orthopedic surgeon at Santa Monica Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine Group in California. The passage of time takes a physical toll -- everyone loses strength, speed and flexibility as they age. Many dedicated amateur athletes are type-A people who work hard to keep their bodies in shape, adds Richard Sedillo, a certified orthopedic manual therapist at Arizona Manual Therapy Centers in North Scottsdale, Arizona. "When you're younger, you can do all this activity for hours a day, go to bed and get up and do it again," Sedillo says. "You can't do that as you get older."

Athletes who are slowed by age or injury shouldn't give up on being active, says Dr. Luga Podesta, the director of sports medicine at St. Charles Orthopedics in New York. Staying active is important to maintain good health, to keep one's weight in check and to lower the odds of contracting diabetes and heart disease, Podesta says. It's good for one's mental health, because physical activity releases endorphins in the brain that contribute to a sense of well-being. And research indicates exercise is beneficial to one's brain health and can spur the growth of new brain cells.

Deciding whether to give up or dial back on a sport you love can be a difficult and emotional decision. Physicians offer this advice to weekend warriors who are weighing whether it's time to drop or cut back on their favorite activity and develop a new regimen:

Is a sports-related injury negatively affecting your quality of life? If your back or joints are too sore or stiff from engaging in your favorite sport to sit comfortably at a desk or through a long flight, it could be time to consider giving up or curtailing that activity, Sedillo says.

"At a certain point we have to realize we're getting older and back off," Sedillo says. People who engage in high-impact sports like basketball, tennis, soccer and running can consider transitioning to other physical activities that are not as hard on the joints, such as bicycling, swimming, walking and using an elliptical machine, Sedillo says.

[See: 11 Ways to Cope With Back Pain.]

Multiple treatments for the same sports-related injury haven't fixed the problem. If you've been to the doctor two or more times for an ailment related to your favorite activity and the injury doesn't heal, it may be time to consider giving up the sport and finding other ways to get exercise. Your body may no longer be able to sustain the physical toll of your athletic endeavor of choice.

"Any time you see a doctor two or more times for the same injury, it's chronic," says Dr. Alan Beyer, executive medical director of the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California. People who continue to engage in a physical pursuit that injured them run the risk of worsening that injury and causing other damage to their body. For example, if someone suffers a torn meniscus in their knee that doesn't heal despite treatment, other parts of the body will try to compensate, which could lead to other injuries, Beyer says.

You've decided to lighten your physical load but aren't ready to give up your favorite sport. You can keep lacing up your sneakers or cleats to compete in your favorite game, just modify the time you spend on the court or the field of play to reduce the pounding on your feet, knees, joints, back and other body parts, Beyer advises.

Instead of playing singles tennis, play doubles, which involves much less running and stopping. Switch from full-court basketball to half-court, which eliminates much of the pounding on your feet and legs. If you're a golfer, try playing nine holes instead of the traditional 18. You'll still be playing the game you love, but it will take a lesser physical toll on your body.

Listen to your body and shut it down for a while if necessary. In the late 2000s, Michael Carreon, one of Sedillo's clients, ran 5 miles a day and lifted weights almost every day. Carreon got in great shape -- his body fat was 7 percent -- but he developed back and hip pain and sciatica, severe leg pain that is caused by a number of things, including a pinched nerve in the lower disc and tightening of the buttocks muscle.

[See: 7 Exercises You Can Do Now to Save Your Knees Later.]

Carreon took Sedillo's suggestion to stop exercising for a while to let his body heal. He took it easy for a year and the irritation, inflammation and pain in his body dissipated. Carreon, 63, then resumed exercising with a new low-impact regimen that includes stretching, water aerobics, swimming and walking with hand weights. Carreon says he's again in great shape -- his body fat is 11 percent -- and remains pain-free. "I've never felt better," he says.

Ruben Castaneda is a Health & Wellness reporter at U.S. News. He previously covered the crime beat in Washington, D.C. and state and federal courts in suburban Maryland, and he's the author of the book "S Street Rising: Crack, Murder and Redemption in D.C." You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him at LinkedIn or email him at rcastaneda@usnews.com.