It's good to be active, but play it smart, too

If your family holiday traditions include pushing back from the table and heading out for a little pickup contest of football or basketball or maybe beach volleyball, you get an A for being active.

But chances are that it's been a while since some or all of the clan has done anything so strenuous, boosting the odds that someone's going to need ice, if not a trip to the emergency department.

Although 10,000 Americans typically go to the ER for a sports or exercise-related injury each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the toll is often heavier on weekends and higher still around big gathering days like Thanksgiving or July 4th, when occasional exercisers come out in droves.

Orthopedic specialists around the country offer some specific suggestions for reducing the risk of sprains, strains, pulls and broken bones.

First off, if you know that reunion or alumni game is coming, it's a good idea to start some gentle workouts in preparation some weeks in advance. It will make you more flexible and less sore after the main event, and might start a healthy new routine.

Even people who consider themselves in good shape and have a regular exercise routine can get hurt when they get on a court or playing field for the first time in months or years.

''The younger you are, the easier it is to transition from sport to sport. If you're past 30, be a little cautious," said Dr. Tracy Ray, director of primary care sports medicine at Duke University Medical Center.

In other words, if you're not a teenager, don't try to play like one. Set some rules that allow for older bodies - touch, not tackle football, no hard checks on the court.

Dr. Pietro Tonino, a sports medicine surgeon at Loyola School of Medicine in Chicago suggests wearing the right gear. No cleats, which can leave aging knees or ankles in jeopardy, just good workout shoes. And loose-fitting clothes, like sweats, rather than jeans that limit motion.

Mouth guards are a good idea, and sports goggles can help avoid errant elbows or lost contacts.

Tonino also warns people to avoid alcohol before or during any game. Take water breaks. Most weekend warrior games don't require sports drinks.

Everyone should take a few minutes to warm up with a little jogging in place, jumping jacks, then moving stretches, like lunges and arm circles. Do a few cool-down stretches at the end of play.

Injuries will happen no matter what precautions we take. Don't try to tough it out, stop until the pain goes away.

Most strains - overstretched muscles or tendons - and sprains - overstretched ligaments that attach bone to bone - can be treated with rest, ice, compression and elevation, but see a doctor for any pain that lasts more than three days, and sooner for anything really painful.

And just a bit of extra incentive: a new study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine illustrates that even for older people, it's never too late to take up exercise.

An eight-year study of 3,500 healthy people at or around retirement age (60s) found that those who took up exercise - moderate to vigorous physical activity at least once a week - were three to four times more likely to not be suffering from any chronic physical or mental illness than those who had remained inactive. Most of the group had either already been exercising or started in their 60s, but a portion remaining steadily sedentary.

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