Muscle Mass and Aging

March 31, 2014

   Your skeletal muscles, also known as lean muscle, are the muscles that attach to your bones and are under voluntary control. As you age your skeletal muscle mass starts to deteriorate. I'm writing this post with the thought that I can give you a realistic sense of what happens to your muscles as you age, and then I'll conclude with the good news about weight bearing and aerobic exercise.

   Starting at age 40, muscle mass begins to decline. It accelerates by 50. Bone mass or density loss in women after menopause is common and our bones begin to lose calcium and other minerals. The rate of muscle loss is faster than the muscle we gain. Our bodies don't work as efficiently as they used to, which leads to a slower metabolism and fat accumulation. Muscle weakening or atrophy sets in. The reasons for atrophy are many. I will share four of them with you: age, sedentary lifestyle, medications and disease.

Age Related Changes in Muscle

   Muscles lose their size and strength as we get older, which contributes to fatigue, weakness and less tolerance to exercise. This is due in part because the number of muscle fibers start to reduce in size and numbers. Muscle tissue is also replaced more slowly. As the nervous system changes, muscles become less toned and the ability to contract them gets more difficult. Bone structure changes result in a loss of bone tissue, calcium and other minerals making this another contributing factor. Joints lose their lubrication (synovial fluid) becoming stiffer and less flexible.

Sedentary Lifestyle 

   You've heard the saying, "use it or lose it". Inactivity causes our joint cartilage to shrink and stiffen, reducing joint mobility. A sedentary lifestyle causes muscles to lose their mitochondria. The main function of the mitochondria is to produce energy for various parts of the body. It burns fat or sugar for energy. If the body does not need energy, fat gets stored. This fat increases the number of fat cells in the body making it harder to lose weight. Being sedentary increases the body's capacity for fat storage, which results in a greater chance for developing high levels of LDL or bad cholesterol. A common thought is that this inactivity causes transdifferentiation (a conversion of one differentiated cell type into another) resulting in the muscle cells changing to fat cells. The body gets signals that it no longer needs those muscle cells.


   There are a few medications prescribed for specific conditions that cause muscle weakness. One of those medications is systemic corticosteroids, often prescribed for people with asthma or inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. Statins are used for preventing and treating atherosclerosis that causes chest pain, heart attacks, strokes, cholesterol and diabetes - muscle pain is one of the side effects.


   Many chronic diseases commonly cause muscle weakness. In some conditions this is due to reduced blood and nutrient supply to the muscles. Chronic kidney disease, anemia, lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, depression, peripheral vascular disease, chronic pain are some of these diseases. Osteoporosis is a disease directly related to the gradual loss of bone proteins and minerals resulting in fragile bones making an individual more at risk for fracture.

Exercise and Strength Training

   The good news is that strength training can address just about all of the above issues. And, you can start - with a doctor's approval - at any age.

  The beneficial effects of strength training include replacing muscle, reducing fat, increasing metabolic rate, relieving or decreasing low back and arthritic pain, lowering blood pressure, minimizing osteoporosis, enhancing glucose utilization, mitigating depression and improving blood lipid levels.

   The amount of exercise on regular basis should be reasonable and represent a doable commitment of time. Lets face it, if it becomes another chore we will discontinue it like all the rest of those disliked chores. Aerobic activity should be 5 days a week of moderate intensity for a total of at least 150 minutes according to ACSM guidelines.

   Muscles are the engine of the body. Strength training enables these muscles to get stronger, helping us to use them more effectively and with less effort. For musculoskeletal fitness the recommendations is 8 to 10 resistant exercises performed 10 to 15 times each as a set 2 to 3 days a week, according to ACSM guidelines.

   I strongly feel that exercise and strength training are essential to living a healthy and productive long life.

Getting More Out of Your Gym Routine

February 24, 2014

   When I planned to write this post back in December, I had envisioned it would be raining in Cambria this week. Envisioning. Hoping. Praying. And I'll bet everyone in SLO county has been, too. Well, it worked!  We have a 50 percent chance for rain on Wednesday, 80 percent on Friday, and 50 percent on Saturday. Let's keep our fingers crossed the weather forecast is wrong and it will rain all week. So here is how I had planned to start this post:

   The rainy season means plenty of time in the gym. I find myself sometimes getting into a routine and going through the motions. All the exercises are good, don't get me wrong, but am I getting the optimum benefit from them?

   I talked to a couple of fellow instructors to find out what they do to walk out of the gym feeling renewed.

   Terri Harrington, personal trainer and yoga instructor at GymOne, says it's not about the specific routine or weights but your awareness and mind-body connection to yourself. "Connect breath to movement," she points out.  "Be there, in your body whether you're spinning, lifting weights or stretching. Connect to your body's intuition for health and well being."

   I love the perspective Terri brings because I wasn't even seeing it that way. It reminds me of what Wayne Dyer says about being thankful for your body and even the parts, like your liver or your feet.

   At Cambria Community Fitness, personal trainer Scott Barrett warns that we need to do our own exercises and not something "off the rack." In other words, a routine needs adjustments for each individual. "If there is any pain or discomfort with any exercise," he cautions, "then you are not doing it correctly or it is not right for you."

Some Exercises

   I do have a few favorites when I'm at the gym and here are four of them you might want to add to your routine. Don't feel intimidated by all the names of the muscles. We all have them! Information is power.

Helicopter Squat
   Squats are a total lower body workout, working out most of the major muscle groups of the butt, hips and thighs. Arm movements get the glutes working more during the squat.
   With your arms pointed to the left, drop into a squat. As you drop down, bring your arms in front of you and to the right side of your body when you are finally down in the squatted position. Then, rise up bringing your arms back to the right side of your body. Switch sides. Start in the standing position with your arms pointed right and squat while bringing your arms to the left side, and back again to the right as you rise. Repeat this several times alternating your arm direction.

Incline Bench Press
   This is a great exercise for the chest and shoulders. The incline bench press uses the pectoralis major and anterior deltoid muscles.
   Lie on your back, weights at your chest with palms facing up. Inhale. Press the weights up to the ceiling, exhaling as you press up and inhaling as you come down.

Overhead Pulldown, Wide Grip

   The pulldown exercises the latissimus dorsi in the back. It also involves the biceps brachii, brachialis and brachioradialis muscles as well as muscles connected to the scapulae: the lower trapezius and the pectoralis minor muscles.
   Position the thigh support in a snug position with feet on the ground. Choose your weight and take a grip equal to twice your shoulder length with the long bar at its highest position. Lean back slightly from the hips while contracting the abdominal muscles. As you pull down, stick your chest out while keeping your elbows wide. Pull the bar down to your collarbone maintaining posture alignment. Do not rest until all your repetitions are completed for the set.

Captain's Chair Knee Raise
   The knee raise works the lower abdominals.
   Support yourself by your forearms on a captain's chair. Inhale. Then lift your knees towards your midsection. Exhale on the way up. Use your abs to pull your legs up. Rotate your pelvis forward to really crunch your abs. Inhale as you bring your legs back down. You can also perform this exercise with your legs straight out which will make it a more challenging movement.