At the recent Ancestral Health Symposium in Berkeley, California, one morning hosted an array of international experts on muscle health. Although I’ve previously written about “Sarcopenia,” I now have more to say about “dynapenia!” Read on - and you can view the talk that inspired this column on the AHS14 video site here.
How do you plan for your future? Do you responsibly tuck a few dollars away each month for retirement? Pay a little extra on your home mortgage? Nice ideas, but those plans are for the future of your environment: how about the future of your very own body?
We have all seen advertisements for vitamins that prevent or reverse osteoporosis: the thinning of bones that raises the risk of fracture, mostly in older folks. Even young people are cautioned to get plenty of calcium to “Build strong bones!” There is a far more important body part to maintain, namely our muscles and their strength. Not only do healthy muscles make life more fun, but they actually help maintain strong bones!
What is Known
Over our lifetimes, we first build our muscles – up to about age 30 – and after that our muscles have a natural tendency to decline, both in size (sarcopenia) and strength (dynapenia). We can take steps to reverse that decline and even build muscle. An athletic 70 year old will have healthier looking muscles (and bones and more!) than a sedentary 40 year old.
What do I mean by “and more”? We have learned a lot about muscles recently and there is still a lot more to learn. Your muscular health can have a profound effect on the health of your entire body.
You probably have heard the term “hormone” and know that certain glands, like the thyroid gland, produce proteins called “hormones” that can affect the function of the whole body. Well, surprise: our muscles make hormones, too! Muscle’s hormones are called myokines: they affect our response to exercise, and contribute to our general regulation of inflammation and immune function.
What does that mean? It means that when you exercise – particularly when you exercise wisely – you do at least three things. First, working a muscle makes it stronger, first by causing muscle damage – just a bit –followed by repair to an even greater level of strength. Secondly, muscle work raises the level of inflammation in the body, temporarily. Inflammation looks bad on television commercials (and sells a lot of anti-inflammatory drugs), but inflammation could also be referred to as “cleaning up the problem.” Inflammatory cells respond to places in our body where we have infections, injury, or deterioration (runny nose, sprained ankle, or early atherosclerosis), and get to work clearing up the problem. Our own inflammatory reaction actually spurs our bodies to make internal anti-inflammatories, forget those drugs! Finally, the myokines produced by a working muscle participate in the chronic health of our immune system, suggesting an explanation for the observation that regular exercise seems protective against certain cancers (prostate, breast, colon, etc.)
Taking a walk is great relaxation, but walking doesn’t really cut it when it comes to getting a good muscle workout and helpful myokine response. Intensity is key to promoting muscle health, and that intensity can be either through speed or force, or ideally both. Moving quickly helps maintain fast-twitch muscles in particular, as well as overall muscle health.
Healthy Steps: Dynapenia
A comprehensive program involves action steps which can be taken gradually or all at once. Start by following basic nutrition and healthy lifestyle guidelines, with the following modifications:
Savor Helpful Foods
Protein: As mentioned elsewhere on this site, current nutritional recommendations include eating 30 grams of protein 3 times a day, to provide proper building blocks for maintaining excellent muscles. Examples of 30-gram protein servings include: 3 eggs and a small serving of meat; a generous (made from 6 ounces raw meat) hamburger; a fish filet about the size of 1-1/2 decks of cards.
Fat: The fats that come naturally with food enhance digestion and absorption. Buy grass-fed meats and wild-caught fish, and let yourself eat the fatty parts. If you don’t enjoy those fats, add butter, ghee, coconut oil, or sour cream to your meal.
Whey Protein: There is some evidence that a protein drink, including 15-20 grams of whey protein, helps with muscle strength when consumed shortly after a good workout.
Fruits and Vegetables: To fill out your protein-based meals, choose a wide variety of colorful vegetables. For dessert, pick a different fruit every day. Colorful fruits and vegetables are good sources of potassium, which is important to balance out the sodium (salt) we add to our food. For most people it’s wise to go ahead and salt to taste, and find vegetables and fruits you enjoy.
Avoid Problematic Foods
Excess sugar: Small amounts of natural sugars (fruits) with meals are perfectly fine, but sweet snacks and foods made with processed flour and sugars tend to encourage accumulation of fat tissue, and thereby interfere with muscle strengthening.
Processed Foods: Many packaged foods are high in sodium and sugars, foods you want to minimize when thinking of any area of health!
Supplements Can Help
Pure Encapsulations Creatine Powder, 1-5 scoops daily, can help increase muscle strength. As little as 5 grams (about 1 scoop) has been shown to help build muscle strength in exercising seniors.
Vitamin D, as mentioned elsewhere, should be taken to achieve normal vitamin D levels, specifically 40-65 ng/mL of the 25(OH)D form of vitamin D.
Daily Life Choices
The most important part of a muscle-building program is entirely in your hands, oh, and your feet, your legs, and most of all your committed resolve. Find intensity in your workouts in two different ways:
Speed: Speed-walking is effective, as are running, cycling, rowing, or working out on an elliptical machine. Move so fast that you can only maintain speed for 20-60 seconds, follow with a 10-90 second rest period, and then repeat 8 times. Rest a while longer, and go for one or two more cycles if you’re up for it.
Go outside! Walking on uneven ground can be challenging, make that part of your workout! Treadmills foster an unnatural gait and ask little of our accessory postural muscles. Wear sturdy shoes and find an outside trail for your speed walk. Make the ground progressively more challenging, and find a few hills you can climb. Your increases in strength will reward your efforts with the added benefit of improved balance!
Strength: The strength part of the workout can be “body-weight” exercises like push-ups or squats, or actual weight lifting. If a strength workout is new for you, consult a personal trainer for coaching on your form. If you push yourself and do something quite strenuous, the wisdom of an experienced coach (who can watch and fine-tune your movements) can help you avoid injuries.
Include rest in your plan: Super-important point: avoid being a gym rat as you would avoid being a couch potato. Over-exercise or no exercise both result in weak and worn-out bodies. Let yourself recover for 2-3 days between workouts! Allow your body (heart, muscle, brain) sufficient time to recover and re-build so that you gradually become stronger. Love your muscles and let them love you back.
As we age, our levels of some key hormones decline naturally. For some people the decline is quite steep and makes exercise both difficult and less effective than it could be. Find a physician who understands careful hormone evaluation and treatment, and ask that your testosterone, DHEA, and general hormone function be checked and corrected.
If an exercise program results in pain, no one would want to stick with it! If you have aches and pains when you try to increase your activity, ask for a referral to a physical therapist who can suggest some therapies and exercises individualized for your own body’s needs.