Move It or Lose It

By: Paula Burchat, BA, RMT, CSMTA(SF) • May 7, 2016

Each year my birthday seems to come around faster and faster.  It propelled me to take an interest in how I should change my fitness program as I get older.   As a long time runner, I’ve had my share of injuries and as a certified Sport Massage Therapist SMT(C) I’ve seen some athletes running well into their 70’s while others completely stop the sport in their 40’s and 50’s.  Some very important research papers recently struck me that I want to share.

It’s been an accepted idea that as we get older we lose strength.  However, several recent studies have shown strong evidence that we begin to lose muscle around the age of 40 due to lack of use rather than just aging alone. 

One study from the University of Western Ontario showed that runners in their 60’s had the same muscle unit function as runner’s in their 20’s.  A motor unit is a group of muscle fibres commanded by a single motor neuron in the spine. As you get older, these neurons begin to die off, leaving the disconnected muscle fibres to atrophy.  The loss of motor units is thought to be one of the key components to strength loss as we age.

Evidence suggests that muscle size and strength will not decline significantly with age for those who workout regularly.  Sedentary people however demonstrate a significant shrivelling of muscle and increase in fat.  These people can see about a 35% decrease in muscle unit function.

Essentially, these studies are reinforcing the truth of the “Move it or Lose it” principle.  Importantly, this principle must be applied to your whole body.  So if you are a runner or a cyclist you need to do something for your upper body or you will see muscle loss and atrophy for the muscles you are not using despite a training regimen for your legs.

Another article from the European Journal of Applied Physiology reinforces the need to add strength training to our regular fitness routine as we get older.  Training for most sports follows the principle of specificity of training which basically says if you want to be a runner, you have to run.  However, this study showed that as you get older, adding strength training will help you become a better runner.

For the younger athletes tested during the research, average age of 25 years approximately, strength training showed to have little effect on improving their efficiency in their sport, but for the older athletes, average age of 51 years, it led to a 14% improvement in efficiency.

The results suggest that doing strength training as you get older impedes muscle wasting that is not a factor for younger athletes.  People can lose 1 to 2 percent of their muscle mass each year starting in their 40s unless they are doing some form of strength training.

This is not to say that younger athletes need not do strength training.  It’s good to do a rounded program of strength, flexibility and endurance training at any age.  The greatest benefit is avoidance of injuries.  However, the result of these studies make it even more clear that once you hit the age of 40 your exercise regimen needs to incorporate aerobic fitness and strength fitness for your whole body.  Staying strong and improving your efficiency in your given sport are encouraging reasons to move it or lose it.

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