ENERGY EXPRESS

Play ball! Just don't foul up with injuries

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In some communities, baseball is on the upswing.

While overall participation is down, with baseball ranking as only the sixth most popular team sport in America, as well as No. 6 among kids age 6 to 17, the number of players 35 and over has risen 18.6 percent since the late 1980s, according to a recent Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association study.

If you play ball, whether at a picnic, a pickup game or in a league, here are some hints to help you maximize your fun and minimize your risk:

Don't sacrifice stretch time. Softball is not a fitness sport, but it is an action sport. You run, you throw, you hit, you slide and you probably use all kinds of arm and leg muscles that don't ordinarily get a workout. For all those reasons and more, you need to stretch out and warm up your entire body before you play. Warmed-up, stretched-out muscles perform better and are less likely to get hurt than tight, tense muscles.

Stretch your hamstrings. A pulled hamstring the big muscle in the back of your thigh is one of the most common baseball injuries. To keep your hamstrings flexible, try the yoga stretch.

Sit on the grass with one leg straight out in front of you, toes pointed up. Bend the opposite leg so the heel rests comfortably at your crotch. Keeping your thigh flat on the ground and your knee straight or slightly bent, gently lean forward, flattening your lower back, not rounding your upper back. As you ease down, reach your arms and hands toward your ankle, lowering your forehead toward your shin.

Don't worry how far down you can go. It's not a competition, it's a process. And don't bounce down.

Stretch your shoulders. The older we get, the tighter we get so before you take the field, spend a few minutes stretching your shoulders through their entire range of motion. It helps to hold the ends of a towel or a bat in both hands, gently reaching back and forth, side to side. Don't arch your back and don't strain. Move gracefully, mindfully, and feel a flow of positive energy as your shoulders loosen and movement becomes more fluid.

Don't pop jammed fingers. A jammed finger can happen to anyone who plays ball, and if it happens to you, don't let someone talk you into "popping it out." The smartest thing to do is put ice on it, then go to a medical service to get it checked.

One way to protect yourself against finger injuries is to strengthen your fingers. To do that isometrically, spread your fingers, touch fingertips to fingertips, and push as hard as you can, one hand resisting the other. Push, resist, push, resist. Do it every day and it can really help.

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