Unlock Your Power: Conquer Age Related Muscle Loss

In Aging by Royce Bowman, PT, Director

Let’s talk about age-related muscle loss.

If you’ve crossed the 50+ age threshold, you probably noticed things changing in your body. If your muscles aren’t as strong as they used to be, you’re not alone.

This age-related muscle loss, or Sarcopenia, is part of your body’s natural aging process. But here’s the great news – it’s not a losing battle. As an experienced physical therapist, I have seen, firsthand, how physical therapy can turn the tide in your favor and regain some of the vitality you once knew.

What to Expect With Age Related Muscle Loss

When you are young, you feel strong, energetic, and always ready to take on the world. Fast forward a few decades and your muscles may seem to have lost some of their pep. This loss of muscle strength and function is, in a nutshell, Sarcopenia.  Understanding Sarcopenia is the first step towards tackling muscle and strength loss.

When you don’t stop age related muscle loss, here are a few things you can expect:

  • Reduced Strength and Endurance: As muscle mass declines, so does muscle strength and endurance. This  makes everyday tasks like lifting objects, climbing stairs, or even walking more difficult.
  • Impaired Mobility: Muscle loss can lead to difficulties in mobility. This could range from issues with balance, leading to a higher risk of falls, to problems with tasks that require coordination, such as dressing, cooking or chores such as vacuuming your carpet.
  • Sarcopenia and Osteoporosis have a direct correlation: When you use your muscles during strengthening exercises, the tendons pull on the bones which causes bone density stimulation.  In other words, if you allow yourself to fall into the negative spiral of muscle atrophy by not engaging in meaningful strengthening exercises, osteoporosis can be an unwanted co-morbidity.
  • Decreased Independence: Due to reduced strength and mobility, individuals may find it harder to carry out daily activities independently. This can have a significant impact on their quality of life.
  • Increased Risk of Injuries: As muscles provide stability to the joints, muscle loss can increase the risk of injuries, including fractures.
  • Chronic Pain and Discomfort: Muscular imbalances caused by muscle loss can lead to chronic pain and discomfort. For instance, back pain is commonly associated with weak core muscles.
  • Weight Gain: Muscle tissue is metabolically active and burns more calories at rest compared to fat tissue. Therefore, muscle loss can lead to an increased risk of weight gain and associated health issues, like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
  • Psychological Effects: The physical impacts of muscle loss can have psychological effects as well, including decreased self-esteem and increased risk of depression due to reduced functional capacity and independence.
  • Decreased Life Expectancy: Several studies have shown a link between Sarcopenia and increased mortality rates, primarily due to the increased risk of falls and related complications.
  • Increased Health Care Costs: The physical impacts of muscle loss can lead to an increased need for healthcare services, including hospitalization, surgery, and long-term care, thus escalating healthcare costs. In fact, according to a 2019 study, the “total estimated cost of hospitalizations in individuals with sarcopenia was USD $40.4 billion.”

It’s important to note that while muscle loss is a natural part of aging, lifestyle factors like diet and exercise can help manage its impacts. Specifically, strength training and protein-rich diets can help preserve muscle mass and function. If you are a male over the age of 50 and experiencing significant age related muscle loss, consider having your testosterone level checked, as it plays a major role in muscle building.

Can Age Related Muscle Loss Be Reversed?

For people who suffer with Sarcopenia symptoms, physical therapy can be a game-changer. It’s like the unsung superhero in the world of health and wellness. It plays a crucial role in maintaining our muscle health, especially as we age. And trust me when I say, it can do wonders in mitigating the effects of age-related muscle loss.

Numerous studies back this up, and my years of working with patients over 50 echo the same story. There have been scientific studies done on folks well into their 90’s that show an increase in muscle girth (hypertrophy) after performing strength training exercises under the supervision of physical therapists. The positive results have been documented with cross-sectional MRI and CAT scans showing true growth of muscle tissue.

Sarcopenia Assessment Process

Now let’s talk about what happens when you walk into a physical therapist’s office. We start with a comprehensive assessment of your physical health. You know, like checking the vitals of a car before a long journey. We measure your muscle strength, evaluate your mobility, and assess your balance and coordination. It’s like mapping out a journey, where the starting point is just as important as the destination.

Customized Therapy: It’s All About You

One size does not fit all, and this principle is especially true in physical therapy. You’re unique, and your physical therapy plan should reflect that. I always tell my patients, “This is your journey, and you’re the hero. I’m just your guide.” We consider factors like your current physical health, lifestyle, medical history, and even your favorite hobbies while crafting this specific plan of care.

Here are some common concerns that people aged 50 and above might have when considering physical therapy for age related muscle loss:

  • Fear of Pain or Injury: Many older adults worry that physical therapy exercises might cause pain or lead to injury. However, a professional physical therapist will always prioritize patient safety and tailor programs to individual abilities and health status. I always ensure that the specificity of your program is based on your evaluation and your individual needs.
  • Concerns About Effectiveness: Some people might question whether physical therapy can really help in combating age-related muscle loss. Numerous studies and clinical experiences have shown that physical therapy can indeed help improve strength and function.
  • Time and Commitment: Physical therapy requires regular sessions and commitment to a home exercise program, which some individuals might find hard to fit into their schedule.  However, if you have a major time crunch on your daily routine, I will pare down a concise exercise program designed to maximize effectiveness specifically for you.
  • Cost and Insurance Coverage: The cost of physical therapy and how insurance will cover it can be a significant concern for many people. Consider this: can you really put a price and your mobility and quality of life?
  • Fear of the Unknown: Many older adults might be unfamiliar with physical therapy and apprehensive about what the sessions will involve. Physical therapy isn’t just about symptom relief, it’s about giving you the tools to stay active and independent.
  • Underestimating the Impact of Age-Related Muscle Loss: Some people might not realize the extent to which muscle loss can affect their quality of life, and therefore might not see the need for physical therapy.
  • Medical Comorbidities: Chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or arthritis can affect an individual’s ability to participate in certain exercises, and might make them hesitant to start a physical therapy program. Multiple health issues can complicate matters. We’ll conduct a thorough evaluation and consult with your physician. Physical therapy can often be tailored to accommodate various medical conditions, whether it’s heart disease, diabetes, or anything else. In fact, physical therapy can be a complementary treatment for managing symptoms or improving functional capacity impacted by your other conditions.
  • Accessibility: Depending on their location or mobility levels, some people might find it challenging to access a physical therapy clinic. Indeed, traveling back and forth isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, especially if mobility is already an issue for you. Think about the endgame here: The aim is to improve your mobility and potentially make traveling easier for you in the future.

Reversing Age Related Muscle Loss

There’s no magic wand to wave away age-related muscle loss, but physical therapy comes pretty close. The core techniques we use involve strengthening exercises, balance and coordination activities, and flexibility exercises. It’s like trying to build a fortress – you need strong walls (strength training), a solid foundation (balance and coordination), and flexible defenses (flexibility exercises).

Apart from these core techniques, we also have some special interventions up our sleeve. Think of these as our secret weapons. For instance, I’ve seen the incredible impact of blood flow restriction therapy on muscle health. One of my patients, in her 70s, started seeing improvements in her mobility and muscle strength after just a few physical therapy sessions. Neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) and surface Biofeedback are other techniques we use to tackle muscle loss effectively.

  • Resistance Training: This form of exercise focuses on pushing or pulling against some force to build muscle strength and endurance. Examples include using free weights, weight machines, resistance bands, or bodyweight exercises.
  • Endurance Training: This training involves activities that increase heart rate and breathing for an extended period, improving cardiovascular health and overall stamina. It can help maintain muscle mass and slow the progression of muscle loss.  It engages muscle activity, but with lower resistance so can perform the activity for longer periods of time.
  • Balance Exercises: Balance exercises can help improve stability, reducing the risk of falls and subsequent injuries. Activities may include tai chi, yoga, exercises on a stability ball or a balance pad.
  • Stretching and Flexibility Exercises: These exercises can help maintain range of motion around joints, thus improving function and reducing the risk of injury.
  • Blood Flow Restriction Therapy: This technique involves restricting the blood flow to a muscle group while exercising. The restricted blood flow – achieved using specialized cuffs placed on the upper or lower limbs – causes an accumulation of metabolites that signal the muscle to grow or achieve what’s called”Hypertrophy”. This technique allows for strength training using significantly lower loads, which can be particularly beneficial for older adults or those with certain health conditions. Research has shown that BFR therapy can promote muscle growth and enhance strength, even in individuals with Sarcopenia. As always, it’s important to note that while BFR therapy can be beneficial, it should only be performed under the supervision of a certified professional due to the potential risks associated with improper application. Therefore, it’s essential to consult with a physical therapist or healthcare provider to determine whether this approach is suitable for you.
  • Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES): This treatment device sends electrical impulses to nerves, causing muscle contraction. It can be helpful in improving muscle strength and function.
  • Biofeedback: The mTrigger Biofeedback device uses surface electromyography (sEMG) to measure the electrical activity produced by target muscle groups during strength or functional training.  The signal is measured in micro-volts and is displayed via an App on your smart phone or Ipad with visual and audio cues. This biofeedback helps you achieve maximal muscle recruitment and get the most out of every single repetition.
  • Functional Training: These exercises mimic the activities of daily living, such as standing from a sitting position, climbing stairs, or lifting objects. They can help improve muscle strength and function necessary for day-to-day tasks.
  • Manual Therapy: Techniques such as massage, mobilization, or manipulation by a physical therapist can help increase range of motion, reduce pain, and improve function.
  • Postural Training: Poor posture can lead to muscle imbalances and dysfunction. Physical therapists can provide exercises and tips to improve posture, which in turn can help combat age-related muscle loss.
  • Sarcopenia Diet: Although not a direct physical therapy treatment, providing advice on a balanced diet, particularly one rich in protein, is an important aspect of managing muscle health.
  • Each person is unique, and physical therapy treatment should be individualized based on a person’s specific needs, current health, and lifestyle factors.  Specificity is truly the key to unlocking your issues and regaining your quality of life.

Essential Tools in Physical Therapy

We love our tools in physical therapy, especially the ones you can use at home.

For example, resistance bands deliver fantastic results. They are lightweight, easy to use, and incredibly effective.

Similarly, stability balls can do wonders for your balance and coordination. Remember, the goal is to help you maintain your muscle health even beyond your “golden years.”

They can help improve your balance and coordination, which are fundamental to battling muscle loss effectively.

Home Exercise Program: Maintain the Gain

Regaining muscle strength is a gradual process.

What we do in the physical therapy sessions is just the beginning. A home exercise program helps you continue to make progress outside the therapy sessions.

One of my favorite stories is about a 75-year-old gentleman who diligently followed his home exercise program. He noticed improvements in his muscle strength within a few weeks. He stopped by my Friendswood clinic recently, huge smile on his face, just to let me know that he has been pain free from his sciatica for 2 full years now. He had just returned from his fishing trip to Alaska and he’s playing 18 holes of golf 3 times a week. So, always remember, maintaining the gain is just as important as making it.

Nutrition and Hydration: Your Allies in Therapy

Physical therapy and exercise are like the bricks and mortar in our fight against age-related muscle loss. But, nutrition and hydration are the cement that holds everything together. Proper diet and adequate hydration can significantly enhance your therapy results. Incorporating protein-rich foods and the right vitamin supplements in your diet can support muscle repair and growth. Also, staying well-hydrated is key to maintaining overall health and well being.

Tracking Progress: From Where to Where

Imagine going on a journey without knowing your destination, seems disorienting, right? The same is true for your Bowman Physical Therapy journey. Regular assessments help us track your progress and adjust your therapy plan as needed. And don’t forget the motivational aspect of tracking progress. Each improvement, no matter how small, is a victory worth celebrating.

Precautions and Safety Guidelines in Physical Therapy

While we’re on the topic of improving muscle health, let’s not forget the importance of safety. Physical therapy exercises are generally safe, but it’s crucial to listen to your body. If an exercise causes pain or discomfort, it’s essential to stop and let your therapist know. Remember, your safety is our top priority.

Age is just a number

With the right tools and mindset, you can keep your muscles strong and healthy. I am confident that you will not only feel better, but you will look better too. Here’s to a stronger you!