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Exercise an effective preventive medicine


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 26, 2001

What might be the most important step you can take, not just to slow down the aging process, but to reverse it? The answer is strength-training, says William Evans of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University,

"Rest is precisely what aging people do not need," says Nutrition Action Health Letter, June 1992.

We have long realized the positive effect muscular fitness has upon athletes, but it has been only fairly recently that studies are confirming the influence muscular fitness has upon health and the aging process.

Our muscular system is involved in every movement that we perform. Without stimulation from exercise, muscles naturally become smaller and weaker; with strength training the musculoskeletal system becomes stronger.

Upon reaching middle age, people generally embark on a gain-and-loss journey -- they gain body fat and lose strength. The gain in body fat is caused by poor nutritional habits and the lack of physical activity; strength loss is caused by the loss of muscle and bone plus a decrease in aerobic capacity.

The loss of muscular strength in the elderly (called sarcopenia), along with bone-density loss, very often can lead to falls and hip fractures. About 20 percent of elderly women die within a year after having hip fractures.

When we are younger and more active, we are building the foundation for future healthy lives. Once we "become of age," we need to work at protecting the miracle we have built.

Exercise is not a frivolous pastime; it is a form of preventive medicine, an essential ingredient for maintaining healthy bodies. Our bodies were meant to move, not to be dormant.

Strength begins a downward spiral as we age; bone and muscle loss begin a slow descent in the mid 30s. Between the ages of 50 and 70, strength can decrease about 15 percent every decade. If left unattended, strength decreases considerably after age 70, leaving in its wake much weakness and disability. Evans refers to this stage as the Disability Zone.

To rebuild lost strength, you need to do strength training along with aerobic exercise. As many as two decades of strength and mass loss can be reversed after engaging in resistance training for at least two months.

This is both happy and sad news: happy in the sense that loss of strength, with all its problems, can be improved upon or even prevented; sad because most people ignore the symptoms and won't make the effort to improve.

I am reminded of my father who, in his later years, was legally blind. He never gave up; he kept moving, and, when he was bed-ridden, he still exercised his hands and arms by squeezing tennis balls.

Just what are some of the benefits to be expected from becoming muscularly fit? For starters, whenever you perform exercises to strengthen muscles, you also strengthen bones, ligaments and tendons.

If you are a woman, you may be thinking that muscular fitness means developing big, bulky muscles. Think in terms of becoming stronger and healthier, not bigger; a personal plus will be the development of toned, shapelier muscles.

Because the ability to increase muscle mass depends largely upon testosterone levels, women who have less testosterone than men do not have to fear developing a bulky look. Men have 20 to 30 times the testosterone levels of women.

Genetics and individual differences do have some effect upon the rate and extent of muscle-mass development. More importantly, think about how strength training is fortifying the bones, reducing the risk of osteoporosis as you age. While men are vulnerable to this disease, women are thought to be at a slightly higher risk level.

Stronger muscle power will make daily living easier: carrying groceries or children, reaching into cupboards, opening jars, gardening, walking, playing sports -- the list can go and on.

One of the primary goals of strength training for older people is to help strengthen the muscles to improve balance and reduce the risk of falling, which often leads to hip fractures. Developing more strength in both the upper and the lower body can help seniors lead a more independent life.

Stronger muscles also boost metabolism. If you are inactive as you age, the decrease in muscular strength can cause your basal metabolic rate, or BMR, to drop. BMR refers to how many calories you burn at rest to maintain vital bodily functions, such as breathing, heartbeat and brain activity. Your BMR accounts for half or more of your daily caloric expenditure.

An increase in muscle tissue increases metabolism. Keep in mind that a decrease in metabolism is related to an increase in body fat.

Think of your muscle as the engine of the body, and your calories as the fuel that is being utilized; build more muscle, and you burn more calories.

One of the problems with diets is that lost weight will be muscle loss, which will lower the metabolism, one of the causes for weight regained.

More than 30-million Americans suffer with low back pain, and about 80 percent of the problems are caused by poor posture, weakened muscles and inadequate flexibility. Many of these concerns can be prevented or improved with back-extension exercises, abdominal strengthening and, of course, flexibility exercises.

Strength training tips

Strength-training programs should be customized to fit each person. You need to know your goals. If your goal is "for the health of it," you can get by with one set of eight to 15 repetitions for each major muscle group of the body.

In the beginning you might want to do the workout three times a week, then, as you see yourself becoming stronger, go for a maintaining level of two times a week. If your goal is more for appearance and getting that "toned look," you will spend more time working out. Go for three sets.

There are still other types of training for specific sports. If you want to develop strength, you will use heavier weights and fewer repetitions; when you are working for endurance, you would use lighter weights and more repetitions.

Always check with a physician before you begin an exercise program.

Warm up your muscles before you even pick up a weight. Five minutes of an easy aerobic exercise such as walking or stationary bike riding is a good warm-up for the lower body, but you also need to include arm movements for the upper body. Some stationary bikes have arm handles that will work your upper body while you are working the lower body.

After the light rhythmical warm-up, I like to incorporate at least one static (no bouncing) stretch for each major muscle group you will be working. When you do a stretch for the back, don't forget you have upper, lower and sides of back that would all appreciate being stretched.

Rest the muscles for a day between workouts. If you don't want a full day off, try working your upper and lower body on alternate days. This rest period is needed for the cellular changes to take place and for the muscles to recover from the positive stress that has been placed upon them.

Never hold your breath. Lifting weights can cause a temporary increase in blood pressure, and holding your breath will cause the blood pressure to go even higher. Exhale through your mouth on the exertion, which is generally the lifting upward of the weight (the hardest part of the exercise movement) and take a deep inhale through your nose on the lowering phase.

Exhaling protects your lower back by creating pressure that acts as a girdle-like support for the back; inhaling brings in a fresh supply of oxygen and will help boost your energy for the next repetition. Hard-core power lifters use a different breathing technique.

If you are performing an exercise in a standing position, place your feet about shoulder-width apart, knees relaxed and abdominals contracted, which will help to protect your back.

Don't allow your knees to go beyond the toes while performing squats or lunges. This can cause hyperextension of the knees and, if repeated often enough, can cause knee problems.

One of the most common mistakes you will see in a workout room is people "throwing the weight" rather than lifting it smoothly. Throwing the weight means forcing the movement in a jerky manner, using more of the body to create the movement than the specific muscle you should be working. This generally is an indication that the weight is too heavy. You want to be able to lift the weight in a smooth, controlled way.

The slower you lift and lower the weights, the more you will be challenging the muscles. There are many variations to the theme as to how many counts you should use for the lifting and lowering phases. One popular version is to take about two seconds on the "lift off," a very slight pause, then two seconds on the return. For variety you might want to try changing the count.

Whether you are using a machine or free weights, you want eventually to reach a point where the last repetition no longer feels too uncomfortable; it is then time to increase the weight gradually.

Never lock your elbows and be sure to keep your wrists in alignment with your forearms. Continually turning your wrists too far inward or outward can place unwanted stress on the wrists and could possibly cause carpal tunnel syndrome.

The 10 major muscles to be strengthened are the buttocks, quadriceps (front of thighs), hamstrings (back of thighs), calves, pectorals (chest), back (upper and lower), deltoids (shoulders), biceps (front of upper arms), triceps (back of upper arms), abdominals.

The pelvic tilt is an excellent exercise you can do at home for the lower back, abdominals and hamstrings all in one. Lying on your back with bent knees, place feet flat on the floor, about hip-width distance apart. Keeping your head, neck and shoulders relaxed, contract abdominals, which will lower your back to the floor. Keeping your back on the floor, tighten the buttock muscles and lift the tailbone off the floor just a few inches. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly release to the floor without arching your back.

- Sally Anderson is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. Write to her in care of Seniority, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. Her e-mail address is

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