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Is Muscle Training Really Important For Aging Well?

Feb 1, 2021 | Featured, Physical

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

Building muscle is not only essential for your physical health, but your brain’s health too.

It is rare that an Instagram post has me sitting up in my chair feeling like I need to make a change.

The post’s heading, ‘Muscle is the Key to Longevity’, caught my attention initially, but it’s what I learnt from the interview that got me scrabbling for a tape measure–with a sit-up and lunge on the way­­–fearing for my brain health. ‘The wider the waistline, the lower the brain volume’, the doctor stated, ‘Diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia–they happen in midlife!’

Oh, my word, I care about my physical health, but even more about my cerebral health. As I watch older folks battling with dementia, I am very aware how real the disease is. I am in my 40s and other than realising I need to put more effort in with physical exercise; I am very keen to keep cognitive decline at bay.

This quote from Dr Gabrielle Lyon really stuck with me:

‘’Waist circumference is strongly associated with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality. The danger zone begins at a waist circumference >88 cm (35 inches) for women and >102 cm (40 inches) for men.

On fMRI studies, the wider the waistline, the lower the brain volume, components of dementia, and a decline in cognitive function.’’

My waist size is not too far off that danger mark, and I would describe myself as ‘average’. Now I am wondering if ‘deluded’ might be more accurate.

Understanding muscle a little better

The interviewee was Dr Gabrielle Lyon, who did her fellowship in nutritional sciences, geriatrics and obesity medicine. In a nutshell, Dr Lyon is muscle-centric and believes healthy muscle mass is what you need to be working towards for a healthy older you. We can achieve this, she explains, through dietary protein and resistance training.

I eat a fair amount of protein. I have always enjoyed a lot of chicken, eggs and fish. If anything, I sometimes worry I eat a little too much meat. But resistance/strength training is not something I have ever invested in.

She explained that part of her fellowship in geriatrics comprised two years’ research. Her research was on midlife weight gain, working with individuals in their 40s and 50s. One participant was a mother of three in her late 40s who was bearing some extra weight around her waistline. Dr Lyon told the interviewer that she knew just by looking at the woman that her fMRI scan would show a decline in her cognitive health!

One of the most important functions of muscles is their ability to store glucose, what we know as carbohydrates, as glycogen. Muscles then use this stored glycogen when we move.

It is also responsible for our resting metabolic rate. It is the energy we use while we rest. Dr Lyon expanded, “When we think about the diseases of aging like Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, these are diseases of metabolic dysregulation. Those are the long-term effects of having dysfunctional muscle.”

I found the interview incredibly interesting and whether the correlation between muscle and brain health is as strong as Dr Lyon suggests, I wanted to add resistance training to my weekly regime of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise and tone up.

Resistance training, also known as strength training or weightlifting, is what improves muscle strength. Think of any exercise that involves you pushing, pulling, or working against some sort of resistance.

If you’re anything like me and have done no resistance training, knowing where to start can be daunting. After some research and trying out various methods, here is what I have learnt.

Tip #1: Keep it simple to start with.

I started with 20 minutes, two to three times a week, working with my weight as resistance (lunges, press-ups, sit-ups, planks, etc.,). I chose this option because I needed it to be sustainable. So many times I have signed up for something, bought all the gear and given up after two months. Starting slow and keeping things simple was a great way to introduce something new to my life.

Tip #2: Find a programme that suits you.

Before 2020, the thought of sitting on the lounge floor, peering into my laptop in an attempt to mimic the personal trainer bopping about annoyed me. But thanks to lockdown, I have become better acquainted to a life of virtual interaction. On top of that, there are so many more websites for exercising at home; they are also very affordable (and often free).

Tip #3: Exercise your top half and bottom half.

Make sure your programme includes exercise for both your top half and bottom half. My bingo arms were the fastest in toning up (and easiest). But I had to remember I needed to work on my legs and that stubborn waistline too.

Tip #4: Spoil yourself to make it easier.

I adore podcasts and cannot help but feel a little self-indulgent walking around our home with headphones giggling privately to the narrator. Now I have an excuse, and it’s something I look forward to and plan.

Tip #5: Accompany this exercise with a healthy nutritional plan.

There are an abundance of nutritional sites offering easy, tasting, and healthy recipes and plans to follow. Protein is key during resistance training. My morning bowl of corn flakes have been replaced with breakfasts options that include foods like egg, salmon, avocado and fruit. With the other meals following a similar pattern.

The glorious discovery about strength training or resistance training is, you see the difference after a few weeks. As you know I am doing this towards a healthy second half with a focus on my mental/cerebral health, but I can’t help but be enjoying seeing a better toned me.

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