Two elderly adults play street basketball together.
If you plan to participate in a high-impact sport like basketball, consider discussing it with your doctor beforehand to ensure it’s a proper sport for your fitness level. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

You like sports and you want to play in an organized league or in intramural competition.

It’s a great idea. You’ll get plenty of exercise and you’ll have fun doing it.

Just be aware of potential injuries and take necessary precautions—especially if you’re age 50 or older, said Matthew Axtman, DO, a sports medicine specialist with Spectrum Health Orthopedics.

“People can do whatever they want, within reason,” Dr. Axtman said. “I’m not going to put any restrictions on them. It’s important to keep moving and keep active.

“However, seniors need to remember that it’s more difficult for them to build and sustain muscle mass than younger individuals,” he said. “As we age, we are also more prone to pain and arthritic changes in the joints.”

Different sports, different impact

Dr. Axtman recommends you pick your sport wisely.

Some sports have more impact on your body than others. Generally, low-impact sports—bowling, weightlifting, walking, swimming—will pose far less risk of injury compared to higher-impact sports.

Pickleball, quite popular with seniors, and racquetball are higher-impact sports because of the side-to-side and front-to-back movements involved. Frequent running can make people more susceptible to knee injuries and sometimes shoulder problems.

Even higher-impact sports—basketball and soccer, for example—are more likely to cause injuries than low-impact activities.

Dr. Axtman urges people to be aware of the potential injuries and try to maintain good bone and muscle structure and stability of joints.

“There’s no 100% way to prevent injuries,” he said. “Everyone from kids in grade school to senior citizens should take precautions to lessen the possibility of hurting yourself.”

Warm-up, hydration

Cross-training is particularly important.

Individuals playing pickleball several hours a day are more likely to develop a shoulder injury because of the repetitive movement, Dr. Axtman said. Weightlifting, swimming and other activities that target different muscles can help prevent serious harm.

Hydration and warmups are important to all people playing sports, especially seniors, said Phillip Adler, PhD, a licensed athletic trainer and operations manager for Spectrum Health Orthopedic Outreach.

This includes stretching and taking warmup swings with rackets, as well as walking around the court or field to loosen the muscles.

“If you expect to get out of your car and just start playing, you are increasing your chances of injury,” Dr. Adler said. “You never see any high school or college team players get off the bus and go on the field to compete.

“They come out to do pregame warmups—and these are highly trained, young athletes,” he said. “You can’t expect our weekend warrior bodies to participate in some of those activities without a warmup followed by a cool down.”

Dr. Axtman offers additional advice for those age 50 and older.

“To play a sport, it really comes down to where you feel you can function and where your body is at,” he said. “Know your capabilities. A 60-year-old playing in 20-year-old leagues, generally, is not good idea.”

Pick a sport you enjoy and ask your primary care physician about it.

Your physician “knows you best and may have some options for you,” Dr. Axtman said. “Whatever sport you pick, be sure not to overextend yourself, which could lead to injury. Find that enjoyment in living that is being active, but being safe.”