My son Mark, visited over the Christmas holiday this year, and I thought it would be fun if we had a game of squash. Now I have to tell you that it had been over six years since I had played squash, and my last game was actually with him. That being said, I have been playing squash off and on since I was a teenager and I figured that I still have those potentially active "squash genes" in me. Also you should know that my son is an excellent squash player, playing in the top leagues at some of the clubs in Toronto and Ottawa. You should also know that he is 26 years younger than I am! We had a good game from my perspective, -- he gave me an 8-0 lead and still won the game to 9, but it was fun.
What I didn't bargain for were the after effects on my body. In spite of the fact that I have been exercising reasonably regularly doing aerobics and weights 2-3 times weekly for a couple of months (and off and on for most of my 62+ years), I ended up with considerable pain, fatigue, headache, and generalized misery over the next three to four days. In retrospect it doesn't surprise me, because squash, in a way, is an extreme sport. Short bursts of intense activity are required in rallies, so that the cardiovascular system is stressed in a concentrated kind of way. It simply isn't like going on a treadmill for 30 minutes and gradually increasing your exercise intensity as you proceed. I knew that my heart rate was "over-the-top" when I was playing, and yet my competitive spirit kept me going. This was in spite of the fact that my son would comment, "why aren’t you trying to run after the ball?" The plain and simple answer - I was exhausted half way through the game!
Few people realize that exercise can induce damage - after all, exercise is supposed to be good for you. The fact is that too much of a good thing, can be just as damaging as too much of a bad thing. Interestingly, even in an elite athlete, the ability to use oxygen during maximal exercise by muscles far exceeds the capacity of the body to deliver it. So even these well-trained people are in an oxygen debt, and it's good to know they suffer too!
What happens to our bodies when we go beyond our sensible exercise tolerance levels is well documented. Researchers have even given it a label – Exercise Induced Pathology or EIP. Any kind of exercise, but particularly intense exercise, will induce a number of negative effects – inflammation, muscle fibre breakdown, acidosis, and what is called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a universal phenomenon. It consists of the manufacture of something called free radicals. These are produced directly as a result of increased energy production in the energy producing factories of the cell called mitochondria. Free radicals are highly energized, and they damage tissue. The body has a way of dealing with free radicals -- it quenches them using antioxidants. You have heard of antioxidants -- they are vitamins like vitamin C, E, carotenes, selenium, glutathione, and Co-Enzyme Q10 etc. Antioxidants literally ‘mop up’ the free radicals generated by exercise. Free radicals create inflammation, DNA damage, and host of other unpleasant end products. The result is exactly what I experienced aching muscles, headache, fatigue and exhaustion. So what's the take-home from all of this experience? All research suggests that moderated, carefully crafted exercise in proper balance with your prior experience of exercise is important. Listen to your body -- it will let you know when you've done too much too fast! Certainly at the beginning of any exercise program you will feel some discomfort. As you gradually increase your exercise program that discomfort will disappear, because the body accommodates to the increase with positive results. You always want to push yourself a little bit, but not too much. Will antioxidants help? Yes. If you are in an exercise program that involves aerobic conditioning or resistance training, then in my opinion you require antioxidant supplementation to minimize muscular, DNA, and mitochondrial damage. For very intense exercise, there are products available that combine antioxidants with certain proteins that can be taken before, during and after exercise to minimize damage. Extra protein is especially important for the elderly person who may be more prone to muscle loss because of their age. Four hundred units of vitamin E (mixed tocopherols are best), 1000 mg vitamin C, 100 µg of selenium, and 15 mg of mixed carotenoids are a good start. In addition, eat lots of fruits and vegetables that have lots of colour in them -- dark green, orange, red, and yellow vegetables all have an abundance of antioxidants. Oh, and I forgot to mention, -- take it easy; don't go at it too hard! I speak from experience. The second game I had a few weeks later with a better matched partner produced similar results, but my recovery was much quicker by 50%, and I won so my ego was happy as well!