Use it or lose it

Exercise physiologist Rhianne Kerr gives some helpful pointers on how to stay active and strong into our later years.

 If you don’t use it, you lose it. It sounds like the hugest cliché when it comes to your body as it ages, but unfortunately it is absolutely the case.

 As you age, it is obvious that your body changes. You don’t look the same, you don’t feel the same, and your body may not always cooperate with what you’d like it to do. Along with ageing comes the progressive loss of muscle mass (sarcopoenia), deterioration of cell function, reduction of physical capacity, and changes in brain function. Needless to say, these changes will contribute to (and possibly even cause) disease, disability and death in older adults. Studies have shown that age-related declines in physical function and loss of muscle mass have been associated with reduced quality of life (Trombetti et al, 2016) in those over 70 - and I am sure it is also the case for those over 60, or even 50.

 As an exercise physiologist, I encounter a lot of chronic health conditions and see how much of an impact a poor level of physical function can have on someone’s life and their quality of life. It saddens me to see how many people accept this as just a part of “getting old”, and how people tend to adopt a passive approach in managing their health.

It’s never too late to start

 As you get older, your muscle mass will progressively decline. “Sarcopoenia”, as it is called, is common in adults over the age of 65, and its prevalence increases with age. After the age of 50, it is estimated that there is a loss of 1-2% of muscle mass each year. This equates to a 50% loss of muscle mass between the ages of 20 and 80… that is huge!

 There is evidence to suggest that this process can be at least offset by the implementation of a resistance based exercise program. Some of this evidence comes from studies conducted with subjects over 80 years old. These individuals can achieve significant gains in muscle mass, muscle strength, gait speed and also, as a result of these physical changes, quality of life.

 If 80 year olds (some of these studies have even included people up to 96 years old) can achieve these benefits from a resistance-based program designed to specifically target muscle mass and strength, there is absolutely no reason why anyone younger can’t do the same. I often hear the excuse “I’m too old to do exercise”- if anything, that is all the more reason to do exercise! If your body is already declining with age, the more you can do to reduce the impact of this, the better!

Being “busy” won’t cut it (unfortunately!)

 Many people believe that they live busy lifestyles, and that having this lifestyle keeps them fit and healthy. This may have some elements of truth to it, but it doesn’t appear to be helping them to reduce the onset of physical changes associated with ageing.

 As much as I believe in having an active lifestyle, there is a marked difference between this and specific exercise. Exercise is much like medicine: you need to target the systems you want to benefit, you have to make sure the dose is right, and you have to make sure that it is taken regularly.

 You need to be able to be fit enough, strong enough and healthy enough to perform your activities of daily living (ADLs), but if at 55, these are exhausting you, making you sore, or leaving little energy for much else, it may be a sign that your physical condition is declining. Some people’s ADLs may consume more energy or be more intense than others, but if you aren’t addressing your muscle strength, mass, bone density, aerobic capacity and mobility through exercise, it is unlikely that these ADLs are doing anywhere near enough to help you to maintain a good level of physical function or condition. It is also unlikely that there is enough of a stimulus to the muscle/bone/cardiovascular system to enable it to adapt and improve.

 There is so much evidence suggesting that resistance training can help to manage a variety of health conditions, along with the benefits of improving muscle mass and strength. This doesn’t mean to say that everyone should be lifting heavy weights, but everyone should be doing something to stimulate muscle growth, and to reduce the effects of sarcopoenia, i.e. resistance training. No diet or medication can replace the benefits gained through specific exercise.

Ageing without regret

 It is inevitable that your body will decline somewhat with age. Sarcopenia, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, hypertension, diabetes - the list is almost infinite as to what can go wrong with your body. Often you see older people unable to do what they used to be able to do, or even what they should be able to do for their age. I have seen 55 year olds unable to get up of the floor, but I have also seen 85 year olds deadlift some serious weight. I think the key is how you decide to treat your body. Change is inevitable - how you respond to it, is a choice.

 If you are cruising along without any apparent issues with your health or your body, and you don’t do anything to necessarily improve its function, unfortunately it is unlikely that it will improve on its own. It is even likely that by this point that disease processes have started, age-related changes are happening, and you are starting to decline in some way or another.

 On the other hand, if you are working on strengthening your muscles and joints, improving your mobility, and working your cardiovascular system regularly, it is unlikely that these processes are going to result in a rapid decline and an acceleration of disease and disability. It is actually likely that you are managing your health better, and have a better physical condition.

 Don’t let yourself or those you interact with get to the point where they actually can’t do anything to improve their health or physical function: don’t regret a lack of action.

Rhianne KerrRhianne Kerr B. App Sc (Ex & Sp Sc), M Clin Ex Phys
Rhianne is an accredited exercise physiologist with a Masters of Clinical Exercise Physiology. She currently works in musculoskeletal rehabilitation in Western Sydney. She is also trained as a Pilates instructor, and teaches Pilates in a clinical setting with a rehabilitation focus. Rhianne also has an interest in Indigenous Health, and has been involved for 6 years with the youth health promotion organisation “Red Dust Role Models" in the Northern Territory. Rhianne is actively involved in a variety of exercise modalities, and aims to change how exercise is perceived by society and healthcare providers.