Muscle: Strong Medicine

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Rescue me.

That could be what your muscles are screaming if you're not already doing strength training several times a week. You don't have to bench-press 100 pounds at the gym to rescue your muscles from being small and lax. Free weights, resistance bands and everyday activities -- climbing stairs, cleaning the house, lifting your toddler or grandchild and vigorous yard work -- all help strengthen, tone and preserve muscle.

That's good, because with age muscle mass declines -- something you may have noticed the last time you tried to sling your carry-on bag into the overheard compartment on a plane.

Depending on activity levels, even twenty-somethings can lose small amounts of muscle. But this natural aging process picks up speed in the thirties, forties and fifties and accelerates even more quickly in the sixties, when "muscle mass makes a dramatic drop," said William Kraemer, an exercise physiologist at the University of Connecticut's Human Performance Laboratory in Storrs, Conn.

Weight training won't return the typical 60-year-old to the vitality and function of a 30-year-old. But numerous studies show it is possible to rescue and build "muscle at just about any age," Kraemer said. "Muscle does respond [to training] over the course of a lifetime."

That's why the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, the National Institute on Aging and other groups including the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise underscore the importance of strength training for people of all ages -- even those in nursing homes.

If you expect more muscle mass to give a big boost to your daily metabolism, as is often claimed, think again. "Add two pounds of muscle, and you burn about 24 calories of extra metabolism per day," said David Nieman, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. "If it's four pounds of muscle, you get on the order of an extra 50 calories burned per day."

That adds up to 350 calories in a week -- or about the energy contained in a tenth of a pound of fat. "You would have to go for 70 days . . . before that would translate to [burning] a pound of fat," Nieman said. Sure, over the course of a year, Nieman said, these calories could add up. "But keep it in context with everything else," including other daily activities and a healthy diet.

Here are some other myths about strength training:

ยท Added protein is needed to build muscle. Most Americans already eat about 90 grams of protein per day, "enough protein to meet the needs of a [professional] bodybuilder," Nieman said. "To take in a protein supplement is just crazy. . . . It's not needed."

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