I’m guessing that most of you have seen the sitcom “Seinfeld”. In one famous episode, Jerry’s sidekick, George Costanza, is in the locker room after getting out of a rather cold swimming pool. While in the process of taking his swimming trunks off, he is caught completely naked by a female who barges in and gets a good frontal view as he stands there paralyzed by the intrusion.
George, noticing immediately that the effects of the cold water had left certain parts of him “physically diminished”, starts screaming that what she was seeing wasn’t an accurate depiction!
According to George, this “shrinkage”, as it were, is the result of environmental conditions. The rest of the episode shows George, obviously apoplectic, trying to tap down the rather humiliating gossip that ensued in female circles from this unfortunate encounter. Damn shrinkage!
What is Sarcopenia?
I use this story to highlight another unfortunate and equally reversible condition, partly caused by the environment, known as “sarcopenia”. I’ve alluded to this condition in previous articles, but have never really given it the attention it deserves. The definition of Sarcopenia reads “loss of muscle tissue as a natural part of the aging process”…in other words, shrinkage.
The question I pose to you today is “what is natural”? Sarcopenia is the result of multiple forces at work conspiring against lean muscle mass, but not all are completely inevitable.
First, the bad news. We all know that as we age, our youthful hormone levels start to decline, playing a significant role in diminished strength and the attendant loss of lean muscle with it. Add to this a nutrient-poor diet, toxic environmental exposure, lack of activity, and the emotional stress we face on a daily basis, and the stage is set for rapid deterioration of the human body.
Dr. Harry Preuss, the Chair of the Department of Nutrition at Georgetown Medical, presented at a symposium I attended 15 years ago on this very topic. I’ve included a slide of his presentation here, which clearly illustrates the gradual decline of lean muscle in a female in ten-year increments. The slide shows an almost imperceptible yet gradual weight gain (fat) and steady muscle loss.
This slide is actually a snapshot of the “natural” aging process in westernized countries, not nearly as prominent in developing countries, and I believe it’s very accurate in its assessment. The only issue I take with this visual is that it doesn’t take into account the effects of osteoporosis and the negative consequences of the gradual loss of bone density, which coincide with Sarcopenia due to a lack of weight-bearing activity (or a strength training program). If the visual were truly accurate, it would depict a slow pitching forward of this female and a subtle reduction in height as her body starts to collapse on itself due to her vertebral bodies losing their uniformity and the discs losing spacing.
Granted, the slide wasn’t constructed for complete accuracy; its purpose was simply to highlight sarcopenia. And guys, this is also exactly what happens to men as we age, so don’t let the use of a female illustration give you a false sense of security.
When Your Muscle Shrinks, Your World Shrinks
I have a saying that goes, “When your muscle shrinks, your world shrinks”. For example, when you lose muscle mass, you lose the ability to perform certain tasks in your life that require strength. This in turn leads to a reduction in mobility, followed closely by a lack of flexibility.
Certain activities inevitably start to drop off your plate as your world starts to slowly close in on you. As activities decrease, the lack of compressive forces on your skeletal system weakens your bones even further. As this cycle repeats itself and starts to pick up speed we find ourselves looking in the mirror saying, “What happened to me?”
As a nation, the United States is a physical train wreck, and these forces described here, once relegated to life after 40, are showing up now in our youths.
A Tale of Three Thighs
Now for the good news. It appears that there is a “Fountain of Youth” or at least a relatively simple formula that can delay sarcopenia, osteoporosis, and a host of other conditions known as Metabolic Syndrome, allowing anyone to live a long, healthy, active life free from morbidity. Quality nutrition + consistent activity + adequate rest = High quality of life! You thought it was going to be a deep dark secret didn’t you?
Take a look at the next slide with the cross-sectional view of the thigh of three individuals with varying backgrounds. First is the thigh of a 40-year-old triathlete. The white circle in the middle is the femur bone with the surrounding muscle being well represented with well-developed musculature. The thin white edge represents subcutaneous fat and, as you can see, is almost non-existent. This is a very lean and athletic person.
Now lets look at the slide of the 70-year-old triathlete. The muscles are every bit as full and healthy-looking, and based on this view, even leaner than the 40-year-old. This is shocking to some, but it’s achievable. I’ve known farmers and ranchers who look and act incredibly young well into their 80s. Why? Healthy foods including plenty of protein, high activity levels, and regimented sleep patterns.
Finally, let’s look at the extremely atrophied muscles of a 74-year-old sedentary man. The muscles in this individual have shrunk back toward the femur and the space that was once taken up by muscle is now replaced with fat. Talk about invasion of the body snatchers! Is it any wonder that this person would have trouble just getting up off the ground, and that any and all physical activity would be a supreme challenge? This image is limited to the thigh, but one needs only to use your imagination to visualize how this mans entire body has turned to Jell-O.
Use It or Lose It
I believe very strongly that you and I were designed to move, and with movement you get blood flow! An intelligent approach to maintaining lean muscle – what we at Wilderness Athlete call “muscle management” – is the key. I want to emphasize that muscle management does not mean Musclehead! Your goal should be a net loss of muscle year after year. Yes, adding some muscle has its obvious benefits, but that isn’t the problem at hand – it’s muscle loss.
By incorporating good eating habits, along with nutritional supplementation when necessary, you feel more like exercising. The subsequent movement causes nutrients to be circulated throughout the body where hungry tissues can be nourished and fortified. Good nutrition and an active lifestyle challenge the body, causing it to retain strength, and the desire to rest (sleep) is a natural byproduct of this activity.
It’s all quite simple, isn’t it? But it doesn’t happen by accident. You have to pay attention and schedule nutrition and activity into your daily routine. Using ranchers again, they don’t face this fitness scheduling problem; their life is an exercise program! But what about the other 99% of the country? We are becoming more sedentary every day.
The term use it or lose it takes on new meaning for you after looking at these pictures. I don’t care what you do to stay physically active, just do something; preferably something you enjoy. I certainly don’t expect folks to be competitive triathletes. The point is the human body will respond if you challenge it, feed it, and rest it.
Regarding nutrition, I’m humored by those who rail against nutritional supplements, yet who think giving whitetail deer extra minerals to improve their health (resulting in bigger racks) makes complete sense. I also hate the word “diet”. I prefer “eating program”. Focus on the incredible number of nutritious foods you can eat rather than junk. Limit the amount of highly processed foods you consume and pay particular attention to avoid foods that contain high amounts of added sugars.
I’d also encourage you to take a multivitamin every single day, fish oils for the omega-3 fatty acids they provide, and a high quality probiotic for digestive health. If you struggle getting adequate amounts of protein, then take that into consideration as well.
It’s On YOU
The formula for a maintaining a lean, healthy body is bonehead simple. Following the formula is another story, but it’s controllable by every person reading this.
To me, a tragedy is when something unfortunate happens to you that is totally unexpected and out of your control. When something happens to you that you do to yourself, well, that’s on you.
I want to encourage you to live a life of self-discipline. I always used to tell my athletes that successful athletes do what unsuccessful athletes won’t do. If it was easy, everyone would be at the trailhead. Pay the price. I see a new Wilderness Athlete bumper sticker: STOP THE SHRINKAGE.
Stay Wild. ~ Coach P.