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Optimal muscle health takes more than strength training

Muscle health pays big premiums if you work to build endurance and power as well as strength.

For a mature man, muscle health is important for reasons that go way beyond just looking buff on the beach. Strong, coordinated muscles allow you to keep doing the healthy exercise and other activities you enjoy to remain vital and independent.

Exercise causes muscles to release chemicals called myokines into the bloodstream. These muscle molecules act on organs, tissues, and processes throughout the body. Intriguing new research suggests that healthy muscles help protect you from diabetes, heart disease, and bone loss.

“There is an important link between your muscles and just about every physiologic system,” says Dr. Shalender Bhasin, an endocrinologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

For optimal muscle health, start with regular training for strength. But also consider additional exercise to get the maximum benefits. “A holistic exercise program that combines elements of strength training with endurance training, mind-body exercise, and balance training has the best chance of improving health outcomes,” Dr. Bhasin says.

Build power & endurance

Resistance training can slow the loss of muscle mass with aging (sarcopenia). But for optimal muscle health, you need endurance and power, too.

Endurance: Common ways that men work out for endurance are brisk daily walking, jogging, swimming laps, or working out on a treadmill, elliptical trainer, or stationary bike. A typical mix is three to five sessions a week of endurance exercise, as well as two sessions of strength training per week. The duration or intensity of the sessions is negotiable; 20 to 30 minutes is adequate to see improvements.

Power training: Age-related muscle loss has the greatest impact on the so-called “fast twitch” muscle fibers that allow you to apply force in short bursts. In contrast, slow and steady resistance training bulks up the slow-twitch muscles, which allow you to apply force more steadily—as in lifting a box of books from the floor. To build power, add some side-stepping or step-up exercises to your routine, perhaps using hand weights or light dumbbells.

Images: Thinkstock

Classic strength training

We achieve peak muscle health by our early 40s but then it tends to decline. Progressive loss of muscle mass, called sarcopenia, leaves you less able to accomplish daily activities and at greater risk of disabling falls.

Regular strength training fights sarcopenia. You build strength from any exercise that requires you to resist an opposing force. This is why strength-building exercise is often called resistance training. You can do it in a variety of ways:

  • Using resistance (elastic) bands of varying length and tension.

  • Performing exercises that use all or part of your body weight to create resistance against gravity.

  • Working with free weights, such as barbells and dumbbells.

  • Using ankle cuffs and vests containing different amounts of weight.

Guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine suggest that healthy adults train twice a week for every major muscle group. “You’ll get an adequate workout if you perform at least one set of the exercises with a moderate-intensity load, twice a week,” says Thomas Storer, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “More substantial gains can be achieved with two or three sets of each exercise, although one set is an excellent start.”

Beyond strength training

The large muscles of your body are composed of many smaller bundles of muscle fibers and the nerves that stimulate them. The coordinated firing of those millions of nerve-muscle units allows you to do everything from hammering a nail to dancing a jig. But the nerve connections diminish with aging.

This is why resistance training takes you only part of the way toward optimal muscle health. You need strong muscles but also the ability to move them in a coordinated way. Neuromuscular exercise training, also known as functional fitness training, tunes up the nerve-muscle connections to preserve balance, coordination, and agility.

Functional exercises should work multiple muscles simultaneously, just as you do when performing many common day-to-day tasks. “It all comes down to being able to move in the way you want or need to move,” Professor Storer says.

Here are some examples of functional exercise training:

  • Use a medicine ball to mimic the series of smooth, natural motions
    required to squat down, grasp a box, rise from the floor to a standing position, and place the object on an overhead shelf.

  • Holding a pair of hand weights or dumbbells, rise from a sitting position as you smoothly curl the weights up to chest level.

Other widely available forms of neuromuscular training are tai chi, yoga, and pilates. But if these hold no appeal, ponder this simple idea: Functional fitness training is just a way of mimicking the way men have kept their neuromuscular hardware tuned up for millennia—by living an active life.

Our bodies are meant to be in motion and to do work, so keep moving. Doing yard work, fixing things around the home, taking a bike ride, and walking on a mountain trail will all get the job done—if you do them regularly. In the end, muscle health comes down to “use it or lose it.”

Posted by: Dr.Health

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