Don’t let muscle mass go to waste

Age-related muscle loss, called sarcopenia, is a natural part of getting older. But after an injury, illness, or any prolonged period of inactivity, muscle loss can occur faster, leading to muscle atrophy. The consequences are greater weakness, poor balance, and even frailty.

“People older than age 65 are especially vulnerable to muscle atrophy,” says Jodi Klein, a physical therapist with Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “It can take longer for the body to recover from dramatic muscle loss, but with the right strategy, older adults can protect themselves from muscle atrophy and rebound easier if it occurs, no matter what their age.”

Signs of weakness

Muscle atrophy can occur from a disease that primarily affects the muscles, such as polymyositis (an autoimmune inflammatory disease). Diseases that rob the muscles of energy, like cancer and malnutrition, are other causes.

But muscle loss most often is due to physiologic atrophy, which happens when people don’t use their muscles enough for an extended period. Besides an injury or surgery, physiologic atrophy can occur because of osteoarthritis, which makes staying active difficult, or a sedentary lifestyle.

Muscle atrophy can lead to

  • weakness in the upper limbs, including trouble raising your arms or reaching for high objects
  • difficulty opening jars, holding a pen, typing on a keyboard, buttoning a shirt, or tying shoelaces
  • muscle twitching and cramps
  • trouble balancing.

Muscle atrophy does not always happen after a physical setback. How a period of downtime affects you depends on your prior health, activity level, and amount of muscle mass. “Men who are regularly active have a much easier time preventing muscle atrophy even if they are off their feet for a while,” says Klein.

Still, it doesn’t take long for the body to lose what it has gained. A 2015 study in the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine found that older men who did eight weeks of strength training lost about 25% of their muscle gains after they stopped training for two weeks.

“A sudden stop in activity is like slamming on the brakes and can be quite jarring to the body,” says Klein. “Even minor muscle atrophy can cause some loss of strength and movement and make activity more difficult.”

Get a head start on recoveryIf you know you will be inactive for a stretch — like from an upcoming surgery — then you can work to prevent muscle atrophy. “If you are already active, continue what you are doing,” says Jodi Klein, a physical therapist with Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. If you are not a regular exerciser, use this time to get started. “The better shape you are in going into surgery, the better shape you will be coming out, and the less chance you have of enduring muscle loss,” says Klein.

Make a move

While you can quickly lose muscle because of physiologic atrophy, you also can get it back. It’s best to get advice from your doctor. He or she can recommend an appropriate program to rebuild your lost muscle. This often includes physical therapy, strength training, cardio workouts, flexibility exercises, and a nutrition plan that may increase protein and calories.

There is also much you can do on your own to increase and maintain muscle mass and strength. Almost any activity that works the upper and lower body can help you regain what you have lost.

Weight training is ideal and can include workouts with dumbbells and resistance bands. Other muscle-building exercises include rowing, swimming, walking, and cycling (stationary or regular bike). “Focus on exercises you can do safely and consistently, or better yet, enlist a trainer to create a specialized plan based on your limitations and needs,” says Klein.

Keep in mind that you have to take small steps at first, and it may take time to get back to where you were. “But focus on the fact that you are moving,” says Klein. “Any activity is always better than no activity.”

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. 5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Collation 3:2-5

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:5-11 (KJV)

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