How can exercise help prevent muscular atrophy?

Audrey K. Chun, MD
Geriatric Medicine
Losing muscle mass is a part of aging, with most people losing around 30% of their muscle strength by about age 70. But such a dramatic loss isn't inevitable. Muscular atrophy is one of the body's age-related changes that can be slowed or at least minimized over time, and that's crucial to preserving mobility and independence in your later years. Regular strength or resistance training can increase muscle strength, reduce muscular atrophy and improve the health of bones and tendons, too. A study in "Deutsches Ärzteblatt International" showed an increase in the distance walked in those who engaged in resistance training, as well as more stamina for functional maneuvers such as standing up from a sitting position. The greater the intensity of the workout, the more benefits were obtained.

This research reaffirms what health experts have known for some time. Resistance training is simply a type of strength training in which effort is performed against a specific opposite force that's generated by resistance. Exercises that force the body to work against gravity, for example, can be considered part of resistance training. Basic resistance training requires using some weights. Even using a soup can will add some extra weight as you go through range-of-motion exercises. Flexible resistance bands are also helpful for a variety of exercises, and they can be easier to handle for some people than dumbbells and barbells.

The principle of specificity, often referred as the SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demands) principle, states that the body will specifically adapt to the type of demand placed on it. When we exercise we are imposing stress on our body. The body must accommodate for this activity level. It does this by increase nerve recruitment and nerve frequency to a muscle as well as increasing the size of muscle fibers.

Atrophy is characterized by the loss of muscle fiber size. The opposite of this is hypertrophy. Muscle hypertrophy is characterized by an increase in the cross-sectional area of individual muscle fibers resulting from an increase in myofibril proteins.

Resistance training protocols that use low to intermediate repetition ranges with progressive overload lead to muscular hypertrophy. A study published in 2004 demonstrated that 24 weeks of training 3 days per week with 3 sets of 8–12 repetitions per exercise improved muscle hypertrophy and body composition.

JC Pinzon

Exercise can help prevent muscular atrophy because the injuries will heal faster if the muscles are activated. The neuromuscular contraction allows faster recovery by engaging all muscle fibers when activated. Use it or lose it applies to muscles after an injury. The cells in the muscle shrink fast if not used. Physical therapy exercises are great when used properly to help faster recovery in conditions when muscles get weak. Conditions like hemiplegia due to stroke, or simple conditions like urinary incontinence due to weakness of the pelvic floor muscles will benefit from strengthening exercises.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.