How to make - and keep - muscles

Last updated 05:00 10/02/2011
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STRONG IN YOUR SIXTIES: Think of weight training as a 'super' for your body.

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Osteoporosis might be a household word, but hands up who's heard of sarcopenia? Meaning muscle loss, sarcopenia is like the ugly sister of thinning bones: together they work to make us frail as we age. Although we're told to keep our bones strong from the teenage years onwards to avoid broken bones in later life, health messages about maintaining muscle are about as loud as a whisper. But it's often when muscles lose power and strength that we fall over and snap a bone.  

When you're in your 30s and 40s, frailty is the last thing on your mind. Yet this is when frailty-inducing muscle changes can start kicking in, as muscle mass - and more importantly - muscle strength and power, start their slow decline, says Professor Rob Daly of Deakin University's Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research. 

"We generally start losing muscle mass - the amount of muscle in the body - at around 45, but we can start losing muscle power as early as our 30s," he says.

Muscle power means a muscle's ability to produce power quickly for more explosive movements like jumping, hopping on a bus, or rising quickly from a chair, he explains - and its gradual decline means that between the ages of 30 and 70 you can lose as much as 70 per cent of your muscle power.

This means it becomes harder to do stuff we take for granted - and which can save us from injury - like negotiating stairs, walking quickly across a road and, if you trip, recovering your balance instead of falling.   

"Losing muscle strength starts a bit later, at around 45 or 50 when we lose around 1.5 per cent of strength each year until 65 or 70 when the loss speeds to about 3 per cent each year," he says.

As for how rapidly we lose the amount of muscle in our body - by the time we get to 60 plus, we can have lost as much as 40 per cent.   

That's assuming you're doing nothing to fight back. Although there are age-related changes in muscle cells with time, lack of use is also part of the problem, says Daly, citing the example of masters athletes in their 60s: they may not have the same muscle power or function as 25-year-old athletes, but it's much better than most other 65-year-olds.

In a perfect world where we'd be doing everything possible to resist frailty - and the nursing home - we'd all be picking up weights in our mid-40s, women included, and using them into old age. 

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"We need more affordable and accessible exercise programs for middle aged and older adults, that specifically focus on improving muscle function - but we also need to learn to train our muscles in a specific way to get the most benefit," stresses Daly.

That means not relying just on standard gym machines where exercises are often done sitting down, but by using weights or doing exercises with movements that mimic those we do in real life such as squats or step ups, he says.

As for boosting muscle power with weights, the trick is to do the lifting phase of a movement as rapidly as possible, then return to the starting position in a slow, controlled way. Stepping rapidly up and down on a box or steps using dumbbells is another good move.  

Preserving muscle also depends on your training being 'progressive' - meaning you don't stay on the same weight, but challenge muscles to keep improving by increasing the weights as you get stronger, he emphasises. 

So if you're 40-ish and want to stay strong for the long haul, Daly suggests finding a gym and a good accredited trainer and asking for a program to help maintain both muscle power and strength.

Think of it as 'super' for your body - a lifelong plan for your functional security in your later years.   

But if you're already 80 or 90, it's not too late to improve muscle strength and function, says exercise physiologist Dr Nathan de Vos of The Strong Clinic at Sydney's Balmain Hospital, which combines resistance training with clinical care for older people with conditions that can be improved by exercise.

"High intensity progressive resistance training improves their muscle function and strength so that daily living activities like rising from a chair, climbing stairs, walking and shopping get easier.

"Some people come in here with walking aids - then find they no longer need them," he says.

What are you doing now to stay in shape for when you're older?

- Sydney Morning Herald


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