How tennis can keep you fitter, healthier, happier and help prevent injuries
Tennis is a game involving movement, skill and strategy making it an excellent sport for both mind and body. When playing tennis, you have to use every muscle and move every joint in your body and this helps maintain the three key factors required for long term sporting performance…strength, flexibility and balance. If you keep these three key factors at their optimum level, then you are giving yourself the best chance of playing the sport you love for many years to come, plus, you will gain many secondary health benefits that this sort of exercise gives you.
Why are these three key factors so important?
To understand the importance of maintaining your muscle power (strength), it is necessary to understand a little about how your muscles age. Basically we have two types of muscle fibres, slow ones for endurance and fast ones for power and speed. As we age, if we do not keep the fast fibres working then they can begin to waste from the age of 30, at a rate of around 1% of our muscle mass per year. That means that by the time you are 70, if you haven’t kept yourself fit then you could have lost between 30-40% of your muscle mass. However, there have been plenty of studies that show it doesn’t matter what your age is, you can always build up those muscle again if you start exercising. This is very important as strong muscles protect your joints against arthritis and will keep your reaction times faster, helping to prevent falls or stumbles.
The more flexible you are then the better your body and muscles can react to being stretched and will therefore be less prone to injury. Tight muscles mean that you don’t move your joints through their full range of movement, which then deprives the whole of the joint of the nutrition it needs, predisposing it to arthritic changes. Good flexibility means healthier joints and easier movement.
Your balance dictates how quick your reactions will be and is often used as a measure of biological age. The fitter you are, the better your balance is and so less likely to injure yourself. Of course, we should not forget that tennis also improves lung and heart function, can help reduce blood pressure, cholesterol levels and osteoporosis. There is also a great social aspect to tennis and all of these benefits add to making the tennis player healthier both physically and mentally. Tennis is fun, demanding, exciting and rewarding. What a great way to exercise without the monotony of a repetitive exercise programmes We all know how hard it is to keep up the motivation for regular exercise but by playing tennis it is so easy. Tennis is a game for life and tennis players will gain these benefits for life.
Muscle ageing vs. exercise
In order to maintain strength as you get older, it is necessary to understand a little about how your muscles age.
Basically we have two types of muscle fibres, slow ones for endurance and fast ones for power and speed. As we age, if we do not keep the fast fibres working, they can begin to waste from the age of 30, at a rate of around 1% of our muscle mass per year. That means that by the time you are 70, if you haven’t kept yourself fit then you could have lost between 30-40% of your muscle mass. However, there have been plenty of studies that show it doesn’t matter what your age is, you can always build up those muscle again if you haven’t been exercising. The type of exercise that is particularly effective at building your fast muscle fibres is called resisted exercise, or anaerobic exercise. It will stimulate the synthesis of muscle proteins and hormones that are necessary for building muscle.
Exercise will also stimulate the production of mitochondria cells in the muscles. These are the cells that provide energy to the muscles, or in other words the muscle’s batteries. The number and condition of the mitochondria is used by doctors and scientists to evaluate the age of muscle.
In Canada, scientists have been studying a 93 year old athlete called Olga Kotelko. She takes part in world veteran athletic competitions and beats her younger, 70 and 80 year old competitors and holds veterans world records in several athletic disciplines. On examination, Olga not only has a large number of mitochondria but none of them show any signs of decay. They have observed that resisted exercise in particular seem to rejuvenate the mitochondria, effectively turning back the biological clock by several years. Studies are also now showing how exercise repairs our bodies at a chromosomal level, initiated by the observation that older athletes tend to avoid many of the expected age-related diseases.
So, not only can exercise help to keep you faster, stronger, improve balance on the court, not only does it help to protect your joints and ligaments from damage but keeps you biomechanically younger so that you’ll be able to play tennis for more years than expected. Exercise is not the elixir of life but it goes a long way to keeping you healthy and prepared for sport.
About the author ( Suzanne Clark)
I am a physiotherapist with over 30 years’ experience working in the NHS. I am a regular tennis player and play both recreationally and for my tennis club in local leagues. I am passionate about giving the older player the knowledge to take control of their fitness so that they can continue playing tennis for many years to come. This can be achieved by understanding some basic changes that happen in the body with age, how simple exercises can help prevent these changes and by adopting some easy injury prevention strategies. Exercise is not the elixir of life but it goes a long way to keeping you healthy and prepared for sport.
This has been the main inspiration for wiring my book, Play Tennis Forever, as I want to help the ‘older’ tennis player play tennis for as many years as they possibly can.
Suzanne's book: Play Tennis Forever ( ISBN 978-1-909623-59-0) available at Amazon
Suzanne's website: www.fitterforever.org