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The Mature Age Athlete: Prolonging Tissue Life

21 Aug 2014
Paul Visentini
Mechanotransduction (Khan 2009) is the term used to describe how the tissues in the body respond to load, and exercise therapy to improve tissue is called mechanotherapy. Every cell in every tissue in every part of the body is constantly responding to load - the compression of a tendon around a bone, the tensile pull of a contraction on muscle, the stress upon cartilage with jumping and running.

Tissues become more capable with “good loading”, and react negatively with “overloading”.  Most importantly it also reacts badly with “unloading” or doing little (Cook and Purdam 2009)! These bad “reactions” can be short term and reverse themselves, and so we can restore low-grade damage in structure AND tissue capability through mechanotherapy.  There is a point in the tendon and cartilage damage continuum when it would seem that there is no turning back and the structural damage will remain (Cook and Purdam 2009, Pollard 2008).

What do we mean by prolonging tissue life? Mostly it is about maintaining the integrity of the tendons, bones and muscles, and especially joint cartilage, as we age. The greatest limiters to athletic activities as we age are arthritis and diminished muscle capacity. Bone health is a general life issue. Aging causes a gradual decrease in bone density, a decrease in the number of muscle fibres, and stiffer tendons.

Aging is also related to cartilage wear, however a much referenced Stanford study (Chakravarty 2008) shows that running doesn’t damage joints in 50 year olds over nearly 20 years of follow up.  Only 20% of the runners ended up with arthritic changes on x-ray, whilst 32% of the sedentary controls had changes.  Running (is this good load?) may protect good joints. However, if you have had trauma to a joint, activity will probably accelerate the onset of arthritis (Katz 2013, Streich 2011 ).

So, what to do as we age? Play it smarter!

  • Don’t overload your tissues and body, but don’t do nothing. Every tissue, joint, body has a sweet spot. Find a good therapist to help you find this “tissue homeostasis”(Dye 2005). You need to know the difference between good and bad load - you can still improve and exercise with pain (Thomee 1997, Silbernagel 2004).
  • Be strong! Optimise the muscle fibres that remain, as this can be protective for joints, tendons and bone! It is also great for all types of chronic health disease (Non Communicable Disease, Matheson 2013).
  • They may seem obvious, but the “people factors” are very important: sleep, fatigue, stress, diet, weight and fear, can all affect tissue.

Be active, have fun and share with the community. This will keep your tissue healthy.

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