Muscle Mass: Use It, Don’t Lose It

Everyone starts to lose a little muscle mass starting at about age 30. Unfortunately, sarcopenia, the medical term for age-related muscle loss, accelerates as we get older. If we don’t do anything to maintain strength, we are more prone to falls and fractures, independence is at risk, and health declines. “Fortunately, we can offset these declines with strength training,” says Leena Uranwala, UCLA physical therapist. “Our bodies respond to stress (or lack of it) and resistance training is a great way to put load on muscles to rebuild and maintain them.”

Research shows that sarcopenia appears to be dominated by atrophy of large, high-powered, type II muscle fibers, which are the fibers addressed by strength training. Multiple studies report that aging adults can slow, arrest, or reverse sarcopenia with resistance training.

Muscles for All You Do

Muscular strength is defined as the ability to produce force against a resistance. For example, lifting weights requires what’s called “static” force, which depends upon distinct and isolated force against resistance. In contrast, running or bicycling requires “dynamic” force, which is the ability to repetitively generate force. We need muscular force (i.e., strength) for everything from balance to speed, flexibility to agility and endurance, and to support all daily movement patterns, such as driving a car, carrying groceries, and picking up grandkids. Even if you haven’t picked up a weight lately, know that it’s possible to get stronger at any age.

Resistance Training Improves Quality of Life

How can getting stronger improve your life? The list is virtually endless. Resistance training burns fat, increases muscle mass, supports functional independence, improves cardiac health (blood pressure and cholesterol levels), boosts mental health and cognitive function, helps fight diabetes and infections, promotes better sleep, improves balance, and speeds recovery after injuries and surgery.

While the research proves these many benefits are quite real, to realize these benefits we need to workout consistently. For some people that may require a lifestyle overhaul; for others it may be just a tweak here and there to ramp up an existing fitness routine. Work out consistently and you will reap the rewards. When you experience how good it feels to live in a strong body, it can be motivation enough to stay the course.

“Typically, you will notice the effects of training within one month, especially people new to strength training,” explains UCLA physical therapist assistant Molli Hermiston. “The more novice you are to strength training, the quicker you will see the benefits.” Hermiston recommends starting with two strength-training sessions per week and then gradually increasing to three times per week.

Sweat for Success

Obviously, the goal of any resistance-training program is to get stronger. That means you will have to work beyond your comfort zone. Strengthening muscles requires progressive loading; once you can lift a weight easily for about eight to 10 repetitions, you need to increase the challenge with more weight. It’s exciting to graduate to heavier resistance. But it’s also vital to do so with proper technique and to know how much is enough. Too much too fast is a recipe for injury. A certified personal trainer or certified strength and conditioning coach can create an effective and safe program designed to meet your goals.

“If you are completely new to strength training, I absolutely recommend hiring a personal trainer for at least a month so they can educate you on proper form and training principles,” recommends Hermiston. “The trainer also will provide accountability strategies. If you don’t want to invest in your health this way, most trainers at gyms will educate you on equipment, if you simply ask. It is their job to maintain safety in a gym environment.”

Exercising with Chronic Conditions

Though some muscle loss is simply a part of living longer, there are other contributors to strength loss, including hormonal changes, neurological decline, poor nutrition, and  sedentary lifestyles. “We have seen some people get weaker during the pandemic due to decreased activity in general,” Uranwala says. “It is never too late to start or resume strength training. Some of the people I have treated are in their 100s. There is always room for improvement as far as strength and functional gains are concerned.”

It can be quite challenging to exercise when you’re in pain from such conditions as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or neurological conditions. But movement can help treat and relieve some symptoms. “If you have issues like these, ask your doctor for a referral to see a physical therapist so you can learn to reduce and control your pain as well as strengthen your body safely,” recommends Uranwala. “Then utilize the movement concepts you learn with the therapist to safely transition to a home exercise program or work out at a gym.”

Creating a Fitness Lifestyle

From strengthening arms to legs and belly to back, inexpensive flat flexible bands offer many exercise options for getting stronger. They are convenient for at-home workouts and are excellent to have when you travel. Many are sold in packages of three or more, providing you with a variety of resistance options, and most come with exercise examples. A light grip is all that’s needed to pull the bands, but if you can’t grip well, you can buy attachable handles. With handles, the flat bands are less likely to slip out of your hand.

Strategies for creating a fitness lifestyle include teaming up with someone so you can keep each other accountable, signing up for a regular class, a competition, or a fitness fundraiser. Realistic goals are also great motivators. “Set a goal and track your progress towards that goal,” says Uranwala. “For example, as an indicator of leg strength, see how many times you can get up and down from a chair in 30 seconds, and strive to increase that number over time.”

Hermiston suggests tracking fitness goals on a paper calendar where you can easily see it, such as on your fridge, or setting up a fitness-tracking app. Many include reminders that alert you when it’s time for exercise. Be sure to celebrate your success by rewarding yourself when you achieve goals.

Remember, it’s never too late to start or ramp up your exercise routine. In addition to the many aforementioned health benefits, resistance training can improve your immune function.  


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