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The Latest on Muscle Strength, Balance Training and Brain Fitness

Everyone wants to remain physically active, socially connected, and cognitively sharp throughout the final third of life.

More than ever before, people in their sixties, seventies and beyond are committing to regular exercise, and scientists are studying the specific ways exercise affects older adults.

My presentation on strength, balance and brain fitness was enthusiastically received at a recent meeting of the Mercer County Retired Educators Association. I presented highlights of current research to inspire participants to

  • Increase their fitness
  • Improve balance, and
  • Stimulate their brain cells.

Here are some of the key topics that were covered:

Body Composition – How Much Muscle Have You Got?

Sadly, adults can lose 1-2% of their muscle mass each year. By the time you’re in your sixties, this starts to catch up with you. You may weigh the same as you did ten years before and not be aware how much fat you’ve gained at the expense of lean body tissue. Instead of simply weighing yourself each morning, monitor your fitness progress with a bathroom scale that measures your body’s fat percentage.

Muscles – They’re Not Just For Strength

Muscle strength allows you to do the things you’d like to do – walk your dog, lift a grandchild, open a stiff jar lid, or carry groceries out to your car.

But muscles also have metabolic and hormonal effects.

  • Muscles have a higher baseline metabolic rate than other types of body tissue.  Building muscle means you’ll burn more calories even when you’re sitting around doing nothing.  It’s a proven strategy of those who’ve been able to lose weight successfully.
  • Muscles are also your body’s backup reservoir of protein. And you need protein to digest your food, mount a defensive attack against pathogens, filter your blood, and perform every other internal metabolic function. If you let your muscles begin to waste away, you’ll have little in reserve to make sure these essential chemical activities continue the run smoothly.
  • Muscle tissue is also crucial in maintaining the normal action of insulin. Insulin is needed so that your cells can absorb sugar from the blood and utilize energy. Most people produce plenty of insulin, but as you age your cells can lose their sensitivity to it. The result is Type 2 Diabetes. Building muscle strength is the best preventive action.

Stronger Muscles Control Arthritis Pain

Strengthen your muscles so they can absorb some of the physical forces that affect joints.  This reduces pressure on your cartilage and eases arthritis pain.

Improve Balance To Prevent Falls & Broken Bones

Millions of Americans are at risk for a fragility fracture – that’s when your bone breaks from a minimal trauma such as falling from a standing height.

You can prevent fragility fractures by strengthening your bones. But you can also prevent fractures by improving your balance so you never fall in the first place.

Balance In Everyday Life

You can find countless opportunities to build balance training into your everyday life:

  • when you’re brushing your teeth
  • washing dishes at the sink
  • waiting in line to buy your groceries
  • watching television, or
  • whatever

Take advantage of these moments to introduce some basic balance challenges into your day:

  • Reduce base of support.  Move your feet closer together, or even balance on just one foot
  • Move to limits of sway.  If you pay attention, you’ll notice that even when you’re at rest, your body is always swaying slightly. Allow yourself to exaggerate those gentle motions.
  • Shift weight from foot to foot.
  • Shift weight to different parts of foot.  Lift up one heel or one toe and notice how your muscles reorganize themselves to allow for the shifting base of weight support.
  • Lift your leg as high as the knee with each step as you walk.
  • Turn and change direction.  Try walking sideways or backwards for a change
  • Stand up without using your arms.  When you get up out of a chair, don’t use your arms pressing down on the armrests. Use just your legs instead.
  • Stand with eyes closed. You can also try all of the balance challenges above with eyes closed.

Movement Is The Key To Mental Health

Recent evidence points to the benefits of exercise in many mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety and the prevention of dementia. There have been more than eight strong research studies in the past three years showing improvements in memory and cognition from walking and strength training.

Specific Brain Regions Are Stimulated By Exercise

Exercise has been shown to stimulate specific brain centers. For instance, the anterior hippocampus, a brain region involved in memory, has been shown to increase in volume from exercise while the posterior hippocampus is less affected. This provides an anatomical model for the benefit of exercise in preventing Alzheimer’s.

In other research, exercise has been shown to stimulate the brain’s frontal lobe, site of high level executive function, without having a similar effect on the temporal lobe.

The Benefits of Exercise Can Override Your Genes

If you have a particular genetic marker – Apo-E – you have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. But only if you’re sedentary. If you exercise regularly, you have virtually zero increased risk of the disease.

Dr. Lavine’s Top 5 Exercises to Develop Muscle Strength

If you don’t have a regular strength-building routine and you’re unfamiliar with the principles of resistance training, you have a few options.

You could consult a personal trainer or physical therapist who can help you develop a personalized program. Or, contact me at drlavine@askdrlavine.com.  See if my basic outline of 5 muscle strengthening exercises would be helpful for you.

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