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You can be 'fit' and still lose muscle

Jane Brody’s been a health writer for the New York Times since 1976. At age 77 she does two physical activities a day — alternating between walking, cycling and swimming — plus exercises for her back. But she was recently diagnosed with sarcopenia, i.e. the loss of muscle and strength.

Sarcopenia is to muscle what osteoporosis is to bone. They often go together. 

Losing muscle and strength puts us at risk of falling, either because we lose our balance or no longer lift our legs properly to walk.

Some estimates suggest that this affects up to 40% of people over 65. It’s a major issue for at least half of all people in their 80s. 

But when someone as disciplined about fitness as Jane Brody (that's her in the photo) finds herself in that situation it’s a wake-up call to all of us.

It’s a reminder, not just that exercise matters, but that somewhere in the mix we have to build strength and replace lost muscle tissue.

There are signs of sarcopenia — for example, you’re finding it harder to walk upstairs or lift things, you’re feeling weaker or more tired than you used to doing certain physical activities, or you’re falling. It seems to affect our lower body more than our upper body.

Diabetics should be aware that they’re especially at risk.

The danger is that we write this off as ‘just old age’ and don’t do anything about it. 

The most important message is that we can always restore lost strength and muscle tissue. You’re never too old to get stronger. The keys are resistance exercise and good nutrition. 

If you don’t want to go to a gym, you can learn a few basic exercises to do at home with equipment such as resistance bands or dumbbells, or using your own body weight. 

You need to learn correct technique so that you use the right muscles and don’t hurt yourself. 

I suspect a lot of women shy away from resistance exercise because they think it’ll be hard and unpleasant, but the golden rule borrows from the three bears story — not too hard, not too easy, in-between is just right.

If you’re not up for lifting weights, at least be doing a regular session of yoga, tai chi or Pilates.

In addition, you need a varied, good quality diet that includes muscle-building protein — a palm-sized amount at each meal.

The research also recommends plenty of anti-inflammatory fruit and veg, and healthy vitamin D levels.

Especially if you live by yourself, it’s easy to get into the habit of having whatever’s quick and easy for meals. But if you plan to continue living alone, it’s imperative to stay strong and function well. 

If you want to test your leg strength, sit on a hard-backed chair and stand up without using your hands as many times as you (safely) can in 30 seconds. 

If you’re aged 60-64, aim to stand 12-17 times. 65-69: 11-16 times. 70-74: 10-15 times. 75-79: same. 80-84: 9-14 times. 85-89: 8-13 times. 90-94: 4-11 times. (Note that these are standards for women; men should exceed them.)

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Sunday, September 23, 2018 | Rhonda Anderson