How to Maintain Your Physical Strength as You Age

Defining the Problem

When we think about getting older, losing our body strength is one of the issues we tend to worry about; it often happens slowly and people don’t realise that they are losing their strength until they experience a problem. An example of such a problem could be not being able to stand up from a chair without support. People may have started using their arms to pull themselves up, or using momentum to stand up, and slowly their legs become too weak to stand up without assistance.

There is a scientific term for the loss of muscle and its strength; Sarcopenia is known as the process of losing muscle as we age. This is caused by an imbalance of two different processes in your body; the breaking down and rebuilding of your muscles.

Our body is made up of cells and almost every cell in our body is replaced over time; our skin cells and the cells in our mouths get replaced very quickly, while cells in your bones or lungs may take a little longer to replace. Also, sometimes our cells aren’t able to function properly, and may become too damaged, so our bodies can replace them with newer cells. The main word to focus on is “replace”; this means that our bodies remove old cells and replace them with newly made cells. The problem with sarcopenia is that our bodies stop creating enough new cells to replace the older cells, causing a net loss of muscle cells.

One reason our bodies stop replacing the muscle cells is because we are not using our muscles enough for our bodies to need to replace old cells that quickly. Our bodies decide this because muscle requires a lot of work to build and maintain. Since muscles use a lot of calories throughout the day, our bodies don’t want to build new muscle and have it use calories if the muscle will not be used often[1]. This is one big reason why we tend to feel weaker as we age; we don’t tell our bodies that all our muscles are important.

While we may not think physical strength is important to our daily lives, it is what we need to be able to live independently; getting up from a chair, showering, preparing a meal and brushing our own teeth require muscle strength. Many people assume that loss of strength is a natural part of life, and often do not attempt to find ways to treat this gradual weakening.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen a trend with a lot of patients where they start feeling tired, so they stop being as physically active. This causes less muscle to be replaced, and can cause more fatigue over time (since now you are doing the same tasks with less available muscle cells). This can cause a cycle of decreasing physical activity and increased fatigue.

Proposing a Solution

Even though our bodies naturally lose about 1% of their strength per year after the age of 50[2], there are ways to slow down the decline (and increase our strength in some cases!). One of the best ways is with exercise. This is because you are basically telling your body that the muscles you are working are still important and worth being replaced.

Even though it seems counter-intuitive, being active and exercising can actually increase your everyday energy levels; you’ll be able to climb stairs without feeling as tired, walk or run for longer periods of time and be able to carry heavier loads. Exercising is not just about losing weight or “bulking up”; it can increase your quality of life and help you keep your own independence.  

Below are 3 simple and convenient tips to help prevent sarcopenia that you can do in your home or community.

Create an in home gym

You can create your own home gym for under 100$; it can include a 15$ jump rope rather than a $5000 treadmill and $12 resistance bands rather than several variations of dumbbells and weights, which can make this option very budget friendly.

DIY Housework

Keeping your house clean can be a workout! Shovelling snow is actually a great way to exercise, assuming you use proper form and have no pre existing heart conditions. Vacuuming and wiping counters can also improve your health. Gardening is also a great way to stay active at home.

Climb… Stairs!

Another way to stay active is simply by taking the stairs; this is one simple way to activate more muscles throughout your day. Try taking the stairs rather than the elevator, and use your own stairs multiple times a day, rather than trying to take as few rounds as possible. I recall the days where I lived in a 3 story (plus basement) townhouse, and would actively climb the stairs several times simply as my exercise for the day. This is especially great for those worried about their risk for osteoporosis.

Finding the Right Health Professional

As you begin your journey to strengthen those muscles, be sure to find a qualified health professional to help you along the way. They can help you decrease your chances of muscle injury, increase the efficiency of your training and a better quality of life afterwards!

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For Your Reference

  1. Marcell, T. J. (2003). Sarcopenia: causes, consequences, and preventions. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 58(10), M911-M916.
  2. Janssen, I. (2010). Evolution of sarcopenia research. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 35(5), 707-712.