Behind the epidemic of growing waistlines is one that gets little attention: The Weakening of America. Beginning in our late 30’s, we lose approximately ½ pound of muscle each year and gain at least that much in fat. By the time we reach 50, the rate of muscle loss doubles. We’re at the point where losing muscle has become a major contributor to chronic illness throughout the Unites States.
In 2008, the US Department of Health and Human Services issued the first ever Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines recommend evidence-based exercise to prevent the progression of chronic illness. Since their release, fitness professionals have been using the guidelines to help people of all ages live well. Despite the attention the guidelines have received, most Americans are still sitting on the sidelines.
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, living an active lifestyle can improve the quality of life while saving you money.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend both aerobic and resistance exercise (strength training) on a weekly basis. This is a new way of thinking for Americans unfamiliar with the benefits of strength training. If you are like most adults, you probably never considered strength training to be an essential health habit. This mindset is common when you consider the research and academic writings of the 20th century.
When Dr. Kenneth Cooper, of the renowned Cooper Institute, published his book Aerobics in 1968, he acknowledged that in spite of the progress that had been made in the field of exercise physiology, we still had a lot to learn. And learn we did – the next three decades generated a mountain of research that turned the field of exercise physiology upside down.
An example of this can be found in a book Dr. Cooper wrote 20 years later, The Strength Connection: How to Build Strength and Improve the Quality of Your Life. In sharp contrast to his first book, Aerobics, which focused exclusively on aerobic activity, The Strength Connection emphasized the health benefits of strength training!
At MEDFITNESS, we recognize the importance of strength training, especially as you age. Without it, adults lose more muscle every year. The more muscle you lose, the less active you become. This cycle of muscle loss and inactivity contributes to chronic illness by accelerating the aging of muscle cells.
Until recently, medical doctors have not fully appreciated the connection between muscle loss and inactivity. Recent research reveals that muscle loss not only weakens muscles, it also reduces their ability to use oxygen. In other words, the more muscle you lose, the more difficult it becomes to be active.
An example of this connection has been observed in studies that measure walking speed and mortality (death) rates. Research shows the slower you walk, the more likely you are to die! According to Michelle Eslami, MD, a geriatrician at UCLA Health System, “increased walking speed is linked to longevity.”1 As surprising as this seems, it makes sense; muscle loss has long been linked to inactivity and chronic disease. Unfortunately, many Americans view slow walking as a necessary part of aging.
Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is our attitude. Most people assume that little can be done to prevent the downward spiral of muscle loss, and end up suffering from diseases that could easily be prevented.
According to Dr. Miriam Nelson, Associate Chief of the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, “Muscle is the absolute centerpiece for being healthy, vital, and independent as we grow older.” Experts agree that adding strength training to your lifestyle can reverse the metabolic aging associated with muscle loss. In just minutes a week, you can build a stronger, disease-resistant body that keeps you active and independent for years to come.
If you choose to skip strength training, you can always opt for the alternative. A long, painful, death march that kills you prematurely. Of course, that’s normal in America!
Richard J. Wolff, RD, LDN
1. Healthy Years, UCLA Division of Geriatrics: Vol.10, No. 2, 2012.