Muscle Strength: Use it or lose it!
Weakness comes on so gradually that you may hardly notice problems you now have with activities that were easy a decade or so ago.
There are a lot of myths about getting older and one is that our muscles naturally deteriorate and lose function. In fact, the latest reports say that age alone is not a factor in the ability to build new muscle and that a 90 year old can create new muscle fibre almost as well as someone half their age.
There are two areas to look at here; the first is to ensure the muscles we still have perform at their maximum levels of strength. The second is whether it is possible to build new muscle to increase this strength even further.
Taking the first aspect, many people slow down as they age. Their lifestyles and interests change which is entirely natural; but it also means that most people stop pushing their bodies as much as they used to. This can lead to sarcopenia, or muscle atrophy, when the muscles reduce in their capacity. Never has that old adage been more true - use it or lose it!
The second aspect, of actually building muscle, is more complex but it can be done with determination and attention to diet.
To get those muscles back in peak performance, the best way is usually “resistance” training, giving your muscles something to work on so they slowly improve. It is probably a good idea to get some professional help to start with. It is all too easy to start in a rush of enthusiasm with dumb-bells or weights from the local supermarket and suddenly find you have a major shoulder problem or other pain from the unexpected or in some cases wrongly performed exertions.
The easiest way to start is to consult a gym. If the monthly fees seem daunting, many gyms these days will offer a special consultation package to start people off in the right direction which can then be transferred to simple home equipment. Alternatively there is a lot of information on the internet and in books about the correct way to exercise.
Resistance exercises are usually performed with weights and bands and can be simple weights that you lift to intricate machines which are designed to exercise specific muscles in your body, from feet presses to long arm stretches.
The basis to start with is to choose a weight that you can use for around 10 repetitions without undue strain. The muscles need to be challenged so they are stimulated enough to get stronger, but the level of resistance is important as if you start off too ambitiously, you can do more damage than good. Slow and steady progress is what you need. The weight exercise should be repeated at least twice with a small pause inbetween, and performed twice or more a week to start making progress.
If you are suffering from various conditions such as joint or back problems, or tendinitis in the elbows, most exercise routines can be adapted so that you can still undertake sufficient resistance training without discomfort.
Not all muscles need resistance training to improve. For older people squats and lunges are very useful for the lower body (although they need to be done properly to avoid strain on the knees or back) and triceps dips and biceps curls are excellent for the upper arm, an area where many older people lose strength.
By steadily working the muscles to their maximum capacity and sometimes a little more, you may be surprised at the improvements that are possible in your general strength.
To seriously build muscle is more complicated, especially as we age, and to do this properly you definitely need expert advice. Most supermarkets today carry a range of high protein body building foods and powders and without doubt special diets, usually based on very high specific protein levels at certain times, can really aid muscle building. But here professional advice really is important. For determined people eager to really regain the vigour of their youth, the time and money investment in this area can be very worthwhile.
But for most people, just the simple act of ensuring their muscles are used to capacity at least twice a week could make enormous differences to their overall strength and wellbeing.
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