Fit For You: Aging & Exercise

Jan 2, 2017

The old saying goes that nothing is certain but death and taxes. We can add another certainty to that list: our muscles will weaken and even atrophy as we age, unless we take care of them by strength building and exercise. In other words, you really do need to move it, or you will lose it.

Marquette University recently received a $2.8 million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund research on how decreased muscle mass can lead to increased fatigue in aging populations, and how a novel exercise program can address these effects.

"Older adults are usually more fatigable, particularly in their lower limbs, than young people. So there’s this problem of greater fatigability and lack of strength. And that’s sort of a general issue we’re trying to address," says Dr. Sandra Hunter of Marquette University’s Exercise Science Program.

As we age, there is an increased risk of injury and loss of independence if we are not physically strong enough to support ourselves. Simple tasks, such as getting out of a chair, walking, lifting objects or driving, can be compromised if we are not in good shape.

The Marquette study will tackle aging and health, both in the brain and nervous system as well as in the muscle, by using non-invasive methods and an exercise regimen to determine the causes of age-associated power loss and difficulties.

"Flexibility and muscle power are really the things that decline rapidly with age, and those are the things we need to be concerned about," says biological sciences professor Dr. Robert Fitts.

Dr. Fitts leads the muscle biopsy, or cellular science portion of the study in his lab. Through taking muscle samples from participants' legs before and after the exercise program, the fiber work is examined to see the changes in composition by the aging process and how they are protected from it through the training.

In addition to examining the muscles, the exercise program takes a different approach to basic exercises by extending stress on the muscle. For example, instead of a one second squat, participants will do a squat over the course of 12 seconds - six seconds squatting down and six seconds coming up to the starting position.

"We have data to suggest that that will increase protein synthesis, and therefore better protect the muscle mass...the longer contraction is more beneficial to the slower fiber type, which is the fiber type predominating in older adults," Fitts explains.

Despite age differences between the groups participating in the study, the initial findings show that fatigue is most visible in the muscle and not the brain and nervous system. This shows that people should be keeping active at any age to reduce stress on the body, but seniors especially need to keep active in order to maintain their changing muscle fibers.

"All muscle is quite adaptable - people should not be afraid of that. There's a bit of a fear factor and myths that older adults don't adapt as well and that's just not true...(they're) just as adaptable both within the central nervous system but also within the muscle," says Dr. Hunter. "Keep active, because it can make an enormous difference."

If you are interested in participating in the Marquette study, please contact Bonnie Schlinder-Delap at (414) 288-6674 or bonnie.schlinder-delap@marquette.edu.

*Originally aired December 2015