Staying Strong, Mobile and Independent
~ By Cate Reade, MS, RD ~
We all take mobility for granted when we are younger. We don’t think twice about walking the dog, hiking the beautiful Rocky Mountains, running around with friends, grocery shopping or cooking and cleaning our homes. Somewhere around our 30s we start losing muscle and strength. This is called sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle. It is a slow, silent progression that affects our level of strength, physical function and mobility. As we age, we may notice that we aren’t as steady on our feet or we lose our balance more easily. Understandably, we may participate in life less as our fear of falling grows. The less we do, the more muscle and strength we end up losing and a vicious cycle begins that can lead to a higher chance of falling, depression and isolation.
While we can’t stop sarcopenia from happening, we can decrease the rate of muscle loss by being physically active and by performing resistance (strength) training one to three times per week. It truly is a “use it or lose” scenario. The good news is that you can regain strength and mobility at any age. The key: strength precedes balance. To illustrate this principle, think about what a toddler does before taking their first steps. They are in perpetual motion, wiggling and squiggling, rolling over and crawling. They take their first steps with assistance and progress to unassisted “Frankenstein” steps. Then with confidence and practice, they are running all over the place, out pacing their care givers!
What seems like “busy activity” is actually the toddler’s way of strengthening muscles and the nervous system that activates each and every move. Simultaneously, they are strengthening proprioceptors which are specialized nerve cells that sense and respond to the environment. These proprioceptors or sensory cells are essential for coordination and balance. This is why strength precedes balance.
Just like toddlers, when we perform a variety of activities and exercises, we are strengthening our muscles and neural systems that help us sense and respond to the ever-changing environment. The human body is the great adapter. With adequate rest and recovery, we will get stronger based on the level of demands placed on our body. When we become more sedentary, we lose muscle mass and the nerve connections that help keep us strong, balanced and mobile.
We can strengthen our body with body weight, weights or elastic resistance. To stay strong and mobile, variety is the key. Engage in lots of different activities and exercises to strengthen muscles at different angles like yoga, Tai Chi and dancing! Change the pace from slow to fast. Slower movement generally builds strength while faster moves encourage power and quicker reflexes. When we fall, we fall fast. Performing some power training after building a base of strength and conditioning can help reduce your chance of falling. If you do fall, it may reduce the chance of injury.
Continue to challenge the body by gradually increasing the intensity or volume of exercise activity. This can be achieved by gradually increasing the resistance level with a higher weight or by using the next level of elastic resistance. The volume of activity can be increased by adding more repetitions (8-15) or sets of repetitions (1-3). Quality always trumps quantity! Be sure to use good posture and form with whatever activity you choose.
If you have questions or are unsure how to get started, contact a certified health coach or personal trainer. You can find qualified trainers through the American Council on Exercise (AceFitness.org) or the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM.org). Look for someone with strong credentials and who specializes in working with seniors. You may need to interview several individuals to find the best fit.
Staying strong today can mean a healthier, happier and more independent tomorrow!
Cate Reade, MS, RD, is an ACE-certified Senior Fitness Specialist, and a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Nutrition and Physical Fitness from NYU. She has been teaching, writing and prescribing healthy eating and exercise programs for over 25 years. She is delighted to be helping seniors regain strength and mobility as the CEO of Resistance Dynamics and inventor of the MoveMorª Lower Body Trainer. Contact Cate at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.MoveMor.com.