Building muscles means staying strong

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One of the worst parts of aging is feeling weaker, nearly 90 percent of Americans think, according to a survey conducted by Abbott, a health care company headquartered in Columbus, Ohio.

But nearly 90 percent of older Americans aren't doing what they need to do to retard muscle loss, indicated the survey of 1,000 adults aged 18 or over. The survey, which was conducted in February, was prepared with the help of the American Geriatrics Society Foundation for Health in Aging, which also reviewed the results before their release earlier this month.

Starting at about age 40, the body can lose about 8 percent of its muscle each decade.

Muscle loss can be retarded significantly by exercise and proper diet. But, according to the survey, barely 10 percent of Americans aged 45 or older are getting enough exercise, or eating the way they should.

Muscle loss "can lead to severe health and lifestyle consequences," said Columbia University Dr. Evelyn Granieri, who provided expert input into the survey design.

"Especially with an aging baby boomer population, it's important that people take charge of their health and take action now so that they can continue doing the things they enjoy in the future," Dr. Granieri said.

Area physicians who specialize in physical fitness, nutrition, and care of the aging emphatically agree.

"I have 50-year-old patients who can't transfer themselves from the gurney, that we [use to] bring them into the [operating room], onto the table because their upper body strength is so poor," said Dr. Vonda Wright, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine physician who is director of the Performance and Research Initiative for Masters Athletes at UPMC.

"If we don't pay attention to our muscle strength, we become people who can't even get up from a chair," Dr. Wright said. "We lose our independence."

Muscle loss "affects people's ability to function," agreed Dr. Barbara Swan, director of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Allegheny General Hospital. "If you've been less active and more sedentary, the effect on function will be a lot more pronounced."

Women are somewhat more at risk than men are, Dr. Swan said.

"Women start out with smaller muscle mass," she said. "You don't have as much of a safety net there."

Thirty minutes of exercise four to five times a week is required to keep up muscle strength, and to keep muscles from being infiltrated by fat, Dr. Wright said.

"When we're young, our muscles look like flank steak," she said. "But when we're older, it's more like rump roast."

An exercise plan should include resistance training as well as aerobics, Dr. Wright said.

Dr. Swan agreed, but added: "The best exercise is the one you'll do. As you get older, it should be low impact. My philosophy is that it's not so important what you do as that you exercise."

Diet is equally important, Dr. Swan said.

"You want to maintain protein in your diet," she said. "Older people tend not to have good diets. Many are malnourished."

"Not only do you need adequate amounts of protein, but the way you consume protein during the day makes an enormous difference, too. You must consume protein at every meal," said Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition for UPMC Sports Medicine.

"For most people, the challenge is in the morning," Ms. Bonci said. "If people skip protein at the first meal of the day, their body is playing catchup the rest of the day. Instead of building up muscle, the protein is diverted to other necessary bodily functions."

People often settle for toast or a bagel in the morning to save money, or because they are in a hurry to get to work, Ms. Bonci said. She suggested cottage cheese, yogurt, or hard-boiled eggs as fast, inexpensive sources of protein at breakfast. Or, she said, you could just put some peanut butter on that bagel.

And there's nothing wrong with breaking with tradition, she said.

"We don't think about eating chicken for breakfast, but we could," Ms. Bonci said. "In Japan, people eat fish in the morning."

One who is doing things right is Mary McFadden, an executive at PNC Bank. She won't give her age, but acknowledges she is older than she looks.

Three years ago Ms. McFadden, who lives in Point Breeze, attended a program at UPMC Sports Medicine run by Dr. Wright to prepare her to run in her first 5 kilometer (3.1 mile) race. She has continued to work out under the guidance of Ron DeAngelo, director of sports performance training at UPMC.

Ms. McFadden said she's lost 16 pounds since first coming to UPMC.

"Her body composition has changed," Mr. DeAngelo said. "She's more muscular. The biggest change I've seen is that she doesn't have that rounded back any more."

In addition to adopting new exercise habits, Ms. McFadden has adopted Ms. Bonci's nutritional suggestions. A frequent breakfast, Ms. McFadden said, is oatmeal with peanut butter.

Jack Kelly: or 412-263-1476.


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