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Use It, or Lose It

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Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Published in the Humboldt Independent on January 19, 2021

While bone loss, or osteopenia leading to osteoporosis, may be the headliner condition aging adults are most aware of, loss of muscle mass, called sarcopenia, may have equally detrimental effects on quality of life and longevity in modern humans.

The suffix ‘penia’ comes from the Greek word for poverty. Fortunately, encouraging studies led by Dr. Brendan Egan of Dublin indicate you can lift yourself out of this muscle poverty by simply using those muscles in more inaccessible and time-efficient ways. Doing so will improve your strength, functional ability, flexibility, and balance, all of which are predictors of long-term independence and happiness.

And you young’uns out there, don’t stop reading yet. Starting at age 30 we naturally lose 3-5% of muscle mass per decade, some people a little more, others a little less, so this information is relevant for you, too.

How muscle functions

When we add strength the muscle fibers get thicker. When we lose mass, the fibers get thinner.

Our muscles are made of soft tissue arranged in bundles of fibers aligned in a certain direction in order to exert force on two or more bones. Functionally, these bundles can be layered with other bundles in the same direction–think quadriceps, the front of your thigh–or they may be arranged in a complex web to provide a widely variable range of motion–think hand or neck.

Individually, anatomists have been teasing apart what defines a single muscle or a muscle group for centuries, but basically, most skeletal muscles have a tendon on each end that links the belly of the muscle to bones it can move, kind of like the ropes at the ends of a hammock attaching the comfy part to the trees it hangs from.

Movement occurs when the brain sends a nerve signal instructing the body to do an action. The nerves stimulate a chemical reaction in the needed muscle fibers, causing them to shorten, thereby bringing bones into a different position as the brain has instructed.

Remember “make a muscle” as a child? You were shortening your biceps on the front of the upper arm bone. The biceps attaches in two places (why it is called “bi”ceps) to the front of the shoulder blade, and then inserts into the radius, one of the two forearm bones. The action created is that of bending your elbow.

Our total number of muscle fibers does not change. When we add strength the fibers get thicker. When we lose mass, the fibers get thinner.

Studies show that in addition to the gradual loss of muscle mass over the decades, risk factors such as sedentary lifestyle or conditions requiring long periods of bed rest can cause more severe muscle loss that can be difficult to rebound from. Even relatively fit people who engage in regular cardio activities but omit strength training are susceptible to health-damaging muscle loss. Sarcopenia is associated with a wide range of health challenges including hormonal and digestive effects, many of which lead to more inactivity, compounding deterioration. Muscle loss accelerates after the age of 75.

Strength training

Simple body-weight exercise is just as good at restoring strength and function as all the fancy machines in those shuttered gyms.

But do not despair, this situation can be remedied. Studies looked at changes in muscle mass in various age-groups and found that strength training done in a group setting over 12 weeks, 3 times a week for about 30 minutes, reversed muscle loss and improved strength and function in every participant, compared to controls who did nothing and to cardio-only exercisers for whom muscle loss progressed as expected.

However, even with these very encouraging results, when researchers checked in with study participants a year later, only 5% were still sticking to their exercise program.

So, if people who were coached and supported through a study dropped out, how can you, in the age of covid, make a reasonable strength program work for the good of your health?

Fortunately, studies have also found that simple body-weight exercise is just as good at restoring strength and function as all the fancy machines in those shuttered gyms. Interestingly, it was also found that when regaining quality of life abilities, muscle mass per se does not correlate to strength and function. Your biceps do not have to have a 20-inch circumference to lift the grandkids, so if you’ve lost that ability, don’t worry about size when training to regain it.

Another aspect of the study focused on diet and suggests that increased protein intake, especially when consumed right after a bout of exercise is very helpful for strength gains. That would be a topic to take up with your medical provider who knows the whole picture of your health.

Additionally, all that muscle-building exercise you do will also have a positive effect on bone density as strength training is one of the most recommended therapies for reducing bone loss as well.

Next time we’ll go into the specifics of how to start a strength-training program that will work for you. Meanwhile, think of movement that you enjoy and what type of program would fit into your schedule and lifestyle. There is an excuse-proof routine for everyone.

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.