As we grow older, we have a tendency to assess the impact of age in the mirror. Some focus on wrinkled skin, while others are preoccupied with thinning hair. Our fixation with the superficial diverts our attention from the very predictable – but preventable and reversible – loss of muscle and bone. These aren’t issues that are immediately evident when glancing into the looking glass, but their impact in our day-to-day existence is far more profound. Think about what it really means to age gracefully. Imagine for a moment, that you could enjoy many of the physical activities that you did 15 years ago. Science not only shows us that this is possible; it shows us how.
Before you begin scheduling early morning runs, bear in mind that regular aerobic exercise does little to prevent muscle wasting. Furthermore, when done excessively, “cardio” workouts can even exacerbate muscle loss. Skeletal muscle makes up roughly one-half of a person’s lean body weight,and the goal is clearly to preserve or further develop it. For a long time, sarcopenia, or the age-related loss of muscle seemed inevitable. In fact, studies done at Tufts University have demonstrated that healthy people in their seventies have already lost 20% of their muscle tissue.
Unfortunately, muscular atrophy is not something that affects merely the oldest members of our society. Eric T. Poehlman of the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center found that menopausal women in their mid-to-late forties lost muscle at a rate six times that of their non-menopausal peers.
The consequences of muscle loss are many. Internal consequences include insulin sensitivity, osteoporosis, instability, and lower metabolism among other things. Usually ones appearance is the motivation to take action. Some external consequences are cellulite, sagging skin and weight gain. However, by engaging in a physically demanding resistance training regimen, you will strengthen your bones, improve your posture, loose fat and reduce the appearance of cellulite.
The human body is a miraculously adaptable organism, finely tuned by millenia of evolution. Exercise doesn’t – in its own right – change the body, but rather the body recognizes the increased demands imposed upon it and reacts accordingly. Effective exercise is an irritating and threatening stimulus that essentially compels the body to adapt. The adaptations include strength and muscle gains as well as increases in bone density. In order to affect these changes, however, one must exercise with sufficient intensity. Arthur Jones, the inventor of Nautilus, realized that the main stimulus on the body was the degree of possible, momentary muscular effort put forth by the exerciser. That effort, or intensity, was the key to achieving positive results. Jones noticed something else too; only those who exercised with great intensity increased strength and muscle size. Those who gave low and even moderate effort saw virtually no beneficial effects.
The most successful exercise programs consist of basic exercises, performed with high tension, low velocity, eccentric muscle contractions. Eccentric contractions are the lowering phase. This is where microscopic tears at the cellular level have been shown to occur. This is the key stimulus for strengthening muscles. There are many exercises, such as chin ups, where you can by pass the lifting phase and only perform the lowering, to obtain an even more powerful stimulus. And by performing the movements in a very slow and controlled manner, intensity can be ratcheted up to levels you might have thought impossible without compromising safety.
The concept of intensity is often difficult to grasp and frequently even more difficult to assess. Many exercisers rely on the vague concept of “perceived effort.” In order to fully comprehend the concept of intensity, imagine holding a barbell of moderate weight in your hands with your arms almost perpendicular to the floor and your palms facing forward. As you begin the movement, you start by barely bending your elbows. Continue bending at the slowest speed that still allows for a smooth, fluid motion. When your elbows are bent completely, pause and squeeze your biceps as if you are crushing a grape in the crook of each elbow. Then subtly reverse the direction of the barbell, slowly and smoothly lowering it in the same manner. Soon, you will arrive at your starting position. When the elbows have just about straightened, repeat the motion, moving the barbell gradually all the while. The burning sensation in the biceps arrives quickly and radiates deep into the muscle. If you were to continue in this fashion, at some point, the movement would become momentarily impossible. That would not be the time to stop the exercise though. Despite being unable to budge the barbell, you continue to exert yourself against it for up to 10 seconds. .
Although we live in a society where the collective mantra may as well be “more is better,” remember that the body’s response to exercise – and not exercise itself – is ultimately responsible for producing results. Consequently, the value of rest and recovery time cannot be overstated. While high intensity exercise is an excellent stimulus, the body can only adapt, i.e. grow stronger and more muscular, if given sufficient time and nutrients to do so. Recovery time varies according to a multitude of factors, including those specific to the individual.
The market for anti-wrinkle creams and hair thickeners is booming. But isn’t it time that you started your anti-aging program from the inside? Loss of muscle and the accompanying decrease in bone density would prevent you from taking advantage of that rejuvenated skin. In less than an hour a week, you can compel your muscles to stay young and strong. The benefits will ripple across every system in your body, making for a stronger, healthier, more active you.