If exercise is so good, why do so many ex-sports people have skeletal ailments?
October 26, 2012 12:25 PM   Subscribe

If exercise is so good, why do so many ex-sports people have skeletal ailments?

Scientists and doctors are always telling people about the importance of physical exercise. Nobody can disagree with the substantial body of scientific evidence backing up these claims.

But I cannot help wondering about all the ex-athletes and sportspeople who have attributed their joint problems and other skeletal ailments to their sporting careers. Yet, you rarely hear warnings against too much physical exercise.

So, if exercise is so good, why do so many ex-sports people seem to complain of joint problems?
posted by jacobean to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Professionals are generally pushing their bodies beyond a reasonable limit, partly because they are trying to improve their standing and thus their pay grade, and partly becasue it's a huge part of their self-identity. Physicians don't promote that level of physical exertion. Moderation in all things!
posted by blurker at 12:28 PM on October 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Because professional sports is not the "exercise" recommended by doctors. I'm sure you can see the difference between a doctor telling you to do cardio for half an hour three times a week, and an ex-football player who, since junior high, has put his body through endless hours of intensive physical activity.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:29 PM on October 26, 2012 [10 favorites]

Sports and exercise are not the same thing. It's good to stay in good physical shape. It's not good to mess up your ankles, knees, shoulders, back, etc. playing sports that carry a high risk for those injuries.
posted by The World Famous at 12:29 PM on October 26, 2012

There's a difference between the amount of exercise a normal person gets and the amount of exercise an athlete gets. For an athlete it's a full-time job and in order to get to the top of their field they exercise in specific ways a whole lot, and very intensely.

Going for a jog regularly is healthful. Long-distance running until your toenails fall off and you lance your blisters and then Krazy Glue them shut so you can keep running is less so.

Also you see less in the way of joint complaints from former swimmers as it's basically zero-impact. There's still wear and tear but not the same shock that you'd get from, say, football. Running on hard surfaces will basically destroy your knees if done with enough frequency and intensity.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:33 PM on October 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also keep in mind - people who play some sports are not just "exercising" and doing it harder than you might do at the gym. They are also doing things like, say, regularly getting tackled or body-checked. That's not too much of a good thing; that's just a bad thing.
posted by ManInSuit at 12:35 PM on October 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

And... In many cases, the traits that make you excel in a competitive sport may not be the same traits that contribute best to general health. For instance, to be a successful football lineman, it helps to be really really big. A lot of those guys are medically considered to be obese. If they lost weight, they might be healthier, and they might also perform worse at their sport.
posted by ManInSuit at 12:43 PM on October 26, 2012

professional sports : regular exercise :: coal-mining : digging the garden

In other words, playing professional sports is intense, full-time physical labor that frequently pushes the human body to its limits. Regular exercise is not.
posted by scody at 12:45 PM on October 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

Also, many sports force athletes to engage in very repetitive activities. Most train to include full-body fitness, but a pitcher is going to repeat the same throwing motion countless times in their career, which puts more stress on the associated joints, and can lead to injury (which some will just play through), you know?
posted by vivid postcard at 12:48 PM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is like saying 'if food is required for survival, why do we hear about health problems caused by eating only sugar for 20 years?'.
posted by jacalata at 12:48 PM on October 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Many sports are probably not structured in such a way that offers the most benefit; our bodies would probably do best with lots of moderate to low intensity varied motion throughout the day, and little bursts of high intensity work sustained for a few minutes at a time, not hours on end of very high intensity, very monotonous motion followed by long periods of rest.
posted by slow graffiti at 12:50 PM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Its not just pros. I remember reading a book on running health and a whole chapter was included on how unhealthy running can be and how generally unhealthy it is if you consider joint and connective tissue injury and degeneration.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:17 PM on October 26, 2012

Not to be glib, but you're essentially saying "If water is so great for you, why do all these people drown?!"

Let's start with nature: A lot of professional athletes are pushing the very limit of what the human body can do. Basketball players especially have joint problems because the human body is just not designed to be 7 feet tall and over 300 pounds, then subjected to something as rigorous and grueling as decades of contact sports.

"Contact" being the key phrase for some of these. Jogging is pretty good for you. Jogging where a 250-300 pound man regularly hurls himself into you at a high rate of speed several times a day for months on end? Probably not so much. The forces in a football game are mind-blowing. Baseball isn't a huge contact sport, but you do have collisions and they can be painful (see Buster Posey as a recent example). In basketball, every time you get knocked down, you slam against a hard wooden floor.

Let's go to nurture: For one thing, to even get to the point where you're a professional athlete requires years and years of practice--and that's not even to be a good one--that's all uncompensated. There are thousands of promising prospects in every sport who blow out a knee or elbow in high school or college and are never the same again, and a significant number of the guys who turn pro play several sports in their youth and during high school. LeBron James, for example, came out of high school having played both basketball and football. And that's not just "going to practice," if you want to make the pros, you're usually the kid that puts in extra work. Maybe you play basketball all the time. Maybe you just want to be the best and spend hours on the practice field. Either way, that's more physical wear and tear.

That's not even counting all the variables. Maybe you have an old-school coach who thinks water is for wimps and you have to push kids til they throw up doing two-a-days. Maybe you have a Sports Dad that thinks teaching a 12 year old how to throw curveballs is a great idea. Maybe you play sports year round because you love it or your parents pressure you into it. Maybe you wind up in the Pirates farm system.

Then you get into the machismo culture of sport where you're less of a man if you admit to being injured. If fans think you're soft, you'll get run out of town. If the coaches think you're soft, you'll get less playing time. If the other team thinks you're soft, they'll target you specifically and try to knock you out of the game. If your own team thinks you're soft, you won't have any friends and may become the dreaded "clubhouse cancer." So you play hurt and that does more damage.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:20 PM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Let's not forget too, that those playing contact sports aren't just exercising, they're being mauled on a regular basis. The latest issue is concussion, but look at any old boxer (if you can find one) and you'll see how destructive these sports can be.

BountyGate with the New Orleans Saints wasn't about a premiere athlete pushing his body to the limit, it was about aggressively hurting one's opponent.

So there's exercise and then there's professional sports. They aren't anywhere near the same thing.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:47 PM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of people who just sit on the couch their whole lives have joint problems and other skeletal ailments too.
posted by chrchr at 1:51 PM on October 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Others have correctly noted that the efforts expended for professional sport is well beyond the effort required for fitness, but there are sports which leave the veterans in fine shape. You rarely see former swimming or cycling professionals in a mess because of the hard efforts during their prime years.
posted by dgran at 2:08 PM on October 26, 2012

You're safer on the bike than the couch.

Being overweight can lead to more skeletal and joint problems than exercise, without the benefits of being in shape.

Swimming and biking are much more gentle on the body than running, but in my book, a marathoner with a bad knee is better off than couch potato.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 2:22 PM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Imho, as an ex-athlete, its entirely due to training through injuries. If you aren't already hurt you probably won't get more hurt. Athletes who last forever are usually just lucky enough to never get that first injury that cascades or smart enough not to compete through it.
posted by fshgrl at 3:36 PM on October 26, 2012

As an ex soccer player I can contribute.

1. Sports people do a ton more excercise then is required. they also do a lot strenious stuff. Too much running and too much weight lifting is bad on the joints.

I found out I am hypermobile and probably shouldnt have played soccer through high school. I am now dealing with the after effects like bad ankles and shoulders. IF I move my arm to far up too fast my shoulders pop out of their sockets. So do my hips and ankles.

PS Cycling and swimming is far easier on the joints then running and sports like football or soccer. heck its recommended the people with hypermobility swim or cycle because it excercises multiple muscles at once without the strain (hypermobile peoples muscles have to work harder then regular peoples do because of the looser ligaments ).
posted by majortom1981 at 6:34 AM on October 27, 2012

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