Behind the epidemic of growing waistlines is another epidemic that gets little attention: the weakening of America. Starting in our 40s, we lose about ½ pound of muscle per year, and gain at least that much in fat. Once we reach the age of 50, muscle loss accelerates. This trend has become a major contributor to chronic illness and premature death in the United States.
In 2008 the first ever Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans were issued. These guidelines which are the most scientifically based of their kind can help Americans avoid the damaging effects of muscle loss. The guidelines provide an evidence-based framework for recommending physical activity to prevent and manage chronic illness. Since their release fitness professionals have been using the guidelines to help Americans live healthy lifestyles.
Despite the attention the guidelines have received, most Americans are still sitting on the sidelines. This is unfortunate given we spend billions of dollars to manage chronic illnesses that could easily be prevented. For many Americans the medical treatment of diseases like diabetes carries significant costs yet doesn’t always improve the quality of life.
In an attempt to reverse this trend, the Surgeon General has urged all Americans to make physical activity a daily priority. According to Dr. Steven Blair at the University of South Carolina, “As a treatment for chronic disease physical activity produces significantly better results than drug therapy or surgery – yet costs much less”. In other words, adding physical activity to your lifestyle can save you money while improving the quality of life. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans make specific recommendations for both aerobic and resistance exercise (strength training). This means you should engage in both types of activity on a weekly basis. This represents a new way of thinking for many Americans who are unfamiliar with the benefits of strength training. Having grown up in the 60’s and 70’s strength training was viewed as unnecessary from a health standpoint. This mindset is evident when you consider the research and academic writings of the 60’s and 70’s.
When Dr. Kenneth Cooper of the world renowned Cooper Institute published his book Aerobics in 1968 he acknowledged that in spite of the progress that has been made in the field of exercise physiology, we still have a lot to learn. And learn we did, the following two decades produced an avalanche of research that turned the field of exercise physiology upside down.
An example of this learning curve is evident in a book Dr. Cooper wrote twenty years later entitled The Strength Connection: How to Build Strength and Improve the Quality of Your Life. In sharp contrast to Aerobics which focused exclusively on aerobic activities, The Strength Connection focused squarely on the health benefits of strength training!
Despite the recognition strength training has received, many Americans still view it as an optional activity. At MEDFITNESS, strength training is the centerpiece of our program! This makes sense because strength training increases your ability to stay active and function independently, especially as you age. Research has shown the primary reason mature adults lose function and become less active is due to muscle loss. When you lose muscle, you lose strength. This cycle of muscle loss and inactivity is a major contributor to chronic illness and premature death in the United States.
An example of this connection can be seen in studies measuring walking speed and mortality rates (death rates). Research has revealed that the slower you walk, the more likely you are to die! According to Michelle Eslami, MD, a geriatrician at UCLA Health System, “research has shown that increased walking speed is linked to longevity.”1 As shocking as this seems, it makes sense. Muscle loss has long been linked to inactivity. Unfortunately Americans view muscle loss and slow walking as a normal part of aging.
Until recently, medical doctors did not fully appreciate the connection between muscle loss and inactivity. However much has been leaned in recent years. Research has revealed that muscle loss not only weakens muscles, it also lowers VO2 max (the ability to extract and use oxygen for the production of cellular energy). This means that weak muscles not only produce less force, they are also less efficient at using oxygen. Both of these changes contribute to decreases in function and physical activity. In other words, the more muscle you lose, the more difficult it becomes to be physically active.
The challenge Americans face is their attitude. Most people assume little can be done to prevent this downward spiral. As a result, they end up suffering from diseases that could easily be prevented or more successfully managed. According to Dr. Miriam Nelson, exercise scientist at Tufts University, “Muscle is the absolute center piece for being healthy, vital, and independent as we grow older.” Experts agree, adding a strength training program to your lifestyle can reverse the metabolic aging associated with muscle loss. In just minutes a week you can build a strong, disease resistant body the keeps you active and independent for years to come.
- Healthy Years, UCLA Division of Geriatrics, February 2013; Vol.10, No. 2