Practical steps to avoid muscle losses
Are you all coping well with your fitness programmes? Have you been brave enough to try any new exercises this week? The next two weeks we are looking at the importance of building a stronger body so you can remain fit and healthy for years. Muscles are the reasons for your weight gain and energy slumps, your height loss and declining health.
We are all guilty to some degree of muscle neglect. We favour one workout over another or don’t exercise anywhere near enough. Yet the repercussions, particularly as we get older, can be catastrophic. Researchers now know that the state of our muscles influences our metabolism and fat-burning ability, the efficiency with which our bodies control blood sugar and offset conditions including diabetes and strokes.
What can we do to keep our muscles in order? There are simple, practical steps we can take to avoid the muscle losses that can spell disaster for our waistline and our health.
Beware sarcopenia: the silent muscle stealer
If we sit back and do nothing, our muscles will wither before our eyes. From the age of 35 sarcopenia (Greek for loss of flesh) attacks our muscles in a similar way to which osteoporosis diminishes bone mass. Most people are unaware that it is happening, yet on average 90g of muscle is lost each year from the age of 40 (men’s greater muscle mass means they have a sharper decline). After 50, sarcopenia bleeds the body of up to 500g of muscle a year; someone in their seventies who does no exercise typically has a third less of the muscle mass that contributes to stature and height, posture and poise than a 25-year-old.
While the losses can’t be stopped completely, they can be slowed with lifelong exercise of the right sort to slow the decline in muscle loss. A mixture of exercise to build both strength and endurance is the most effective way of maintaining muscle size and function. Press-ups, lunges and crunches — combined with plenty of running or cycling is ideal. Extra protein can be useful as you get older and, in addition to making sure there are protein sources in your daily diet (dairy, fish, soya, meat, whey).
Work your red and white muscle fibre fitness Our muscles comprise different types of fibre — red and white — and while most people are born with a pretty even share of the two, the precise ratio is determined genetically. What’s important is that we activate and use our muscles as a whole, not favouring activity that works one type of muscle fibre over another.
Our red or “slow-twitch” muscle fibres are the kind used to fuel long-duration, low-intensity movement, such as walking and jogging, standing or lifting something light. They tire slowly and dominate your body’s muscle make-up, meaning they are easier to target on a daily basis with general movement. Our white or “fast-twitch” muscle fibres, on the other hand, fuel speedy, powerful movements — jumping, sprinting, heavy weight training — and, in many people, are underused.
Since our white, or fast, muscle fibres are recruited only when high-intensity, short-duration exercise is performed, a sedentary person may rarely activate them. Exercise programmes should be designed to promote the use and retention of both fibre types and the use of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is increasingly seen as an effective way of doing this by many researchers. HIIT sessions are short, sharp bursts that work muscles to their maximum — a few 20, 30 or 60-second sprints on a bike, running or walking hard uphill or swimming at speed once or twice a week will balance your muscle fibre workouts. Pump iron
Dozens of studies have shown that resistance exercise — and weight training in particular — is the most effective way to stem the substantial losses that occur through sarcopenia. Pushing against a heavy resistance — as you might in weight training or when lifting your own body weight in exercises such as the press-up — triggers beneficial tiny tears in myofibrils, the proteins that cause muscles to contract. Cells are activated around the area where this micro-damage occurs and the body recruits protein to repair and strengthen the muscle. In short, it acts as a catalyst for muscle growth, but it also helps to blast the fat that accumulates on the hips and thighs of women and the stomachs of men as hormones fluctuate from age 40 onwards.
When researchers split dieters into three groups — one doing no exercise, one attempting aerobic exercise only and the third doing a mix of aerobic and weight training workouts — they found that while everyone lost about 21lb (9.5kg), the lifters shed 6lb more of pure fat as opposed to the fat and muscle combination shed by those who didn’t pump iron. Building strength by doing weights will ensure that your joints are stable and your metabolism is faster. A combination of body weight resistance exercises [squats, jumps, push-ups] and weights is most effective because overloading your muscles by adding weights speeds up your rate of progress.
The benefits are unending: weight training also helps to stabilise blood sugar, which has a tendency to go haywire as we get older. Middle-aged men who lifted weights for 30 minutes a day, five days a week were shown in one trial to reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 34 per cent. And stronger muscles mean stronger bones. Sixteen weeks of weight training increased hipbone density and elevated blood levels of osteocalcin — a marker of bone growth — by 19 per cent in a group of women. If there’s one gym change you adopt for your muscles, make it this one. Part two coming next week.
See you soon
“Push harder than yesterday if you want to feel different tomorrow”