Fitness Expert Gabe Mirkin Discusses Tennis Elbow and Recommends Disco Dancing
When Gabe Mirkin was 27 and just out of Baylor medical school, he was 6'1" and 185 pounds—but in terrible shape. So he thought he would start running. A trackman back at Harvard College, and always compulsive, he was soon "up to 20 miles a week, then 40 and 100. This mileage mania led to destruction," he recalls. "Every week I spent running I spent a week injured." Not only did his weight plunge to 139 pounds, but Mirkin broke several bones in his feet, pulled numerous muscles, became dependent on vitamins, took amphetamines once and almost died of heatstroke. The doc soon discovered that he was not alone: Out of 55 million weekend athletes 20 million are injured every year. Yet until very recently his own profession couldn't help. He was himself once subjected to unnecessary surgery. So though his specialty was (and is) dermatology and allergy, Mirkin became interested in sports medicine and began teaching the subject at the University of Maryland in 1975. Now, at 44, Mirkin has published a lay primer called The Sportsmedicine Book (Little, Brown, $6.95 paperback). His co-author was journalist Marshall Hoffman, and the two now collaborate on a nationally syndicated newspaper column on fitness. On his own, Mirkin has done occasional TV spots for CBS and has just started a two-hour nightly radio talk show on a Philadelphia station. He is also the founder of the Run for Your Life Program, and his wife, Irene, and their four children—Gene, 16, Jill, 14, Jan, 12, and Geoff, 10—all got involved. Gene set world running records for his age—at 7, 8 and 9—then quit cold as have the rest of the kids. At his office in Silver Spring, Md. Mirkin and Judith Weinraub of PEOPLE discussed fitness regimens and the woes of the weekend athlete.
What sports are the best?
The ones you enjoy most. But they must be rhythmic, constant and vigorous. By that I mean enough to raise your pulse to 120 beats a minute for 30 minutes—at least three times a week. Anything less won't train your heart, help you lose weight or keep you fit. By that definition, most bowlers, golfers and tennis players are not athletes. But regular disco dancers are. So are aerobic dancers, rope jumpers, runners, cyclists, swimmers and racquet-ball players.
What's the problem with the other sports?
The reason I dump on tennis is that studies show that most people spend 80 percent of their time standing around waiting for the ball. You can burn more calories sweeping the floor. The best all-round activity is running. You can get the most exercise in the least amount of time. You don't have to buy any equipment. You don't need a partner. And you exercise every muscle, including nose and ears.
How should one begin if out of shape?
If you haven't exercised for many years, go to your doctor and get an exercise electrocardiogram. Not only will this tell you whether your heart is sound, but it will also tell you where to start—how much exercise your heart can tolerate. Then you must go through a pretraining period to get your muscles and heart in order; you do a very light work load very easily and gradually increase it.
How do you start training?
The rules are exactly the same as for an Olympic champion. Rule one is the hard-easy principle. You must stress your muscles, but you must also allow time for them to recover. It may surprise you to learn that 30 minutes every other day is more effective than 15 minutes every day.
Are there any common dangers or mistakes for beginners?
Many people do too much too soon. The most common cause of injury is not realizing how badly out of shape they are and trying to correct 20 years of atrophy with a couple of weeks of exercise.
But you've said in your book that age isn't necessarily a problem?
Right. Several studies show that you can start exercise very, very late in life. It's irrevelant what you do when you are younger. It's the exercise that you get when you're older that counts. Incidentally, varsity athletes are less likely to exercise when they're 50 than those who never earned a varsity letter. And studies show that former athletes who don't exercise have high blood-fat levels, are fatter and die younger than people who have never exercised at all.
How do you avoid over exercising?
You listen to your body. If you get a pain in one spot and it gets worse as you go along, go home or you'll tear or break something. Plan on only three hard days a week, no more. If you have a hard day's schedule and you don't feel good, forget about it. Take an easy day. Only take the hard days when you feel good, because if you don't feel good when you start, you won't feel good when you finish. And stretch! Every time you exercise vigorously, your muscles shorten. Muscles that are like tight violin strings are far more susceptible to tearing. The great injury preventer is stretching exercises.
What are the most common injuries of the weekend athlete?
In activities using the feet such as tennis, soccer and any running sport, perhaps the most common are shin splints. That is especially true among women who wear high heels which shorten their calf muscles and pull the shin muscles off the bone. The victim should undertake an exercise regimen to strengthen the weaker muscles, the shins, and stretching the strong ones, the calves. The other very common injury is Achilles tendinitis—a pain in the back of the heel—which is treated by stretching the Achilles tendon. After that the most prevalent problem is runner's knee. Treatment involves special inserts in the shoes from a podiatrist, to keep the feet from rolling excessively. Treatment for runner's knee is definitely not surgery.
Can you tell what injuries your body is likely to be susceptible to?
We are now at the point where we know who is going to get injuries before they happen. People with flat feet are likely to get runner's knee. People with very high arches, which is what I have, are likely to break bones when they run. People with a deep curve in their back are likely to get back pain when they run or lift weights.
What about tennis elbow?
People who try to hit the ball with a wrist movement rather than using their entire upper arm are generally more susceptible. Using too heavy a racket, too heavy balls, too much tension on the strings or an oversize grip all aggravate the stress on the forearm muscles that are attached at the elbow. So does a weak or faulty backhand. The treatment is the same regardless of the cause: rest for two to seven days followed by exercises to strengthen the injured muscles. A New York doctor reports that he's yet to see tennis elbow in a player with a two-handed backhand.
If you have a sports-related injury, how do you pick a doctor?
I recommend that you try to find a physician who is also an athlete. He or she has probably seen similar problems or had them. If you live in a city with a college or professional team, call its trainer. He will usually recommend an experienced physician. If you live in a small town, call the high school coach.
You report so many horror stories about sports injuries, one wonders if it is really worth it?
Absolutely. First of all you feel so good. There is a mood elevation that lasts from six to 18 hours after exercise. Second, you live longer. Studies show that people who exercise vigorously in later life get less than one-third the incidence of heart attack. Third, it improves the quality of your life.
We did a survey on marathon runners, and not a single one admitted to making love for less than an hour each time. That is considerably longer than the average, which is about 17 minutes. Runners claim they have the same endurance in bed that they have on the road. There are some people who get short of breath going up a flight of stairs. These people are also lousy lovers.
What about sex before an athletic event?
It's ridiculous to restrict sexual relations before a game. The amount of energy it takes for most people when they make love is equal to running a 40-yard dash. Pregame warm-ups take more than that. Furthermore, if you're used to doing something every night and you don't do it, you won't sleep as well. Athletes are amazingly regular in their sexual life. They're seven-day-a-week people. Casey Stengel, the late skipper of the New York Yankees, put it pithily: "It isn't sex that wrecks these guys, it's staying up all night looking for it."
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