I already gave you 20 reasons to exercise earlier this month, and I hate to use the S word just to get a rise out of people, but sometimes dropping the S-bomb is the only way to get people’s attention. Alright, here goes. Sarcopenia.
A number of degenerative changes happen to our muscles as we age. We get injured and muscles often remain semi-damaged. We develop myofascial trigger points – regions of irritation and shortening in muscles that cause them to become taut, less flexible, weaker, and to produce (often complex) pain patterns. And the worst part of the deal: we lose muscle mass – a process called sarcopenia.
Muscle loss is estimated at 0.5% to 1% per year after the age of 25. (This is an average, of course – if you start weight training in your 20s or later, you might actually increase your muscle mass.) The process really kicks in during our 40s and 50s. Muscles not only get smaller, but the quality of our muscle also declines. This is due to the infiltration of muscle with fat, hardening (development of scar tissue) in muscle, changes in muscle metabolism, oxidative stress (the primary aging mechanism, and one reason why anti-oxidants are so valuable), degeneration where nerves enter muscles, and more.
There’s a lot that can be done to help thwart this degenerative process is, and the number one intervention is . . . (drumroll) . . . exercise! We all should be exercising at least every other day, and this should include a mix of strength training and aerobic movement. Even if you have no interest in owning big muscles, you need to bear weight in order to keep your muscles strong. And strong muscles don’t just make you lookbetter as you age, they’re integral to good balance (i.e., helping you avoid a fall), mobility, and functionality. With a modest exercise practice, just about everyone should be able to continue to carry their own groceries and clean their house until far into their elder years.
As I mentioned in last week’s article, I’m a big fan of exercise that emphasizes the engagement of the whole body and the mind. Tai chi (taijiquan), other martial arts, and certain forms of yoga asana are all good training in this regard. It doesn’t need to be your main form of exercise, but some form of mind-body-total-engagement training should at least complement your exercise regimen.
I highly encourage you to try a good tai chi or i chuan class. If the teacher doesn’t convey the “internal work” of tai chi, find another class. If you’ve only watched others do tai chi, it may seem that there’s no effort behind the flowing movements they’re performing. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Ideally, the whole being is working – from the feet to the head to the fingertips – and the attention is focused like a laser. The reason it looks effortless is because of the simultaneous imperative to maintain a state of inner peace. Doesn’t that sound like a form of training that would serve you in the rest of your life?
Ideally, you can bring this level of intention to the more conventional exercise, and even household tasks, you do. Make exercise non-negotiable. Do it all the time – think of your day as an obstacle course. Challenge yourself when it gets easy. Incorporate variety. And finally, try smiling and staying mentally relaxed even while you work at your max.
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Dr. Peter Borten