Strong muscles and bones

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Try multitalented strength training. A remarkable new study by Tufts University researchers found that strength training "turned back the clock" in several different--sometimes unexpected--ways for postmenopausal women. Researchers compared two groups of 20 women, ages 50 to 70 years. One group performed five different strength-training exercises for two sessions a week. The other group did no strength training. Results: After one year, the women in the training program

lost three to four pounds of fat, increased their muscle mass by four pounds, increased bone mass in both the hip and the spine, and improved their balance. Meanwhile, all of these measures worsened in the controls, increasing their risk of osteoporosis, falls and fractures.

Another benefit: Spontaneously, the women in the strength-training group began participating more in vigorous leisure-time activities like gardening and dancing. Best of all, says lead researcher Miriam Nelson, Ph.D., the women loved strength training. "I was amazed that there were so many changes on so many fronts."

In another study, 13 men who were all around age 60 and were in a strength-training program got rid of about four pounds of fat while building about four pounds of muscle. Losing fat anywhere is great, but these men lost almost half of it from an especially important area: their waists and abdomens. Excess weight around the middle is associated with increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain kinds of cancer.

Before you staff a new spoil, prep your body to prevent injuries. Work out with weights three times a week to strengthen the muscles that you'll be using. This can also make your tendons and ligaments more resilient, and the stronger muscles make your joints more stable and less prone to injury. When strength training, be sure to strengthen all the muscle groups involved in the sport. When exercising the legs, for example, don't just strengthen the quadriceps (front of the thigh) without working on the hamstrings (back of the thigh). Unbalanced muscle groups may put you at greater risk of injury. (You can find a good primer on all the exercises you need in Prevention's June 1994 "Ask the Fitness Doctor" column.) If you're new to strength-training, have someone in the know show you the ropes. Keep training once or twice a week to maintain your strength.

Walk an hear a day, six days a week. Or, if you like strength training, as little as 30 minutes a day three times a week has been shown to be of benefit to the bones. Strong bones are made, not born, says Sydney Lou Bonnick, M.D., author of The Osteoporosis Handbook (Taylor Publishing, 1994). To keep your bones at their strongest throughout your life, you need a hefty daily dose of exercise that's weight-bearing and impact-loading. Weight-bearing exercise means you're on your feet, letting your skeleton support the weight of your body. For example, swimming isn't considered a weight-bearing exercise since the water is holding you up. But walking is. Bicycling is weight-bearing for your spine, since it supports your upper body, but not for your leg bones, since they're resting on the pedals.

Impact-loading means that an impact, or force, is passing through your bones as you exercise. It doesn't have to be a wallop--just by walking at a casual pace, you strike your heel against the ground with a force equivalent to 1.3 times your body weight. The best bone-building exercises are both weight-bearing and impact-loading. They can be things like volleyball, tennis, walking or jogging. Your bone-boosting regimen should include strength training as well.

Bend over backward for your spine. A slouched posture doesn't just make you look older, it can literally age your spine over time, as well. This can set you up for chronic back problems. Persistently poor posture may cause a change in the shape of the spine, placing more stress on it and its supportive structures, says spine specialist Jeffrey Young, M.D. Upper-body muscles get unbalanced as the back overstretches and the chest collapses.

Taking time regularly to stretch the spine backward can counteract the chronic forward curve assumed during daily activities like driving, working at a computer and reading. Bending backward creates space between the vertebrae, increasing circulation to spinal tissues and bone.

To reap the benefit of back bending, try this gentle exercise based on yoga: Roll a firm blanket into a jelly-roll shape six inches or so high. (Start smaller and increase as you feel comfortable.) Position it to be perpendicular to your spine at the level of your shoulder blades. Lean back on your elbows and elongate through your neck and the top of your head as you gently lay back over the blanket, resting your head on the floor.

You should be able to relax and feel comfortable. If not, reduce the height of the rolled blanket; or our lower back hurts, bend your knees. Stretch your legs out in front of you and take your arms up over your head, if you can. Support them with a pillow if they don't reach the floor. Breathe gently and stay for up to five minutes. Repeat every day.

Keep a bad back out of bed. Eight out of 10 adults will have a lower-back problem at some point in their lives. Even though most short-term back problems go away on their own within a month, many back-pain sufferers make the mistake of spending most of that time in bed. And while they lie there, their muscles and bones weaken, hastening the aging process. Guidelines developed recently for the government's Agency for Health Care Policy and Research stated that resting in bed for more than a few days may actually delay recovery from lower-back problems. And a study conducted in Finland corroborates that advice. In the study, people with back pain recovered faster if they went about their normal daily routines as best they could rather than trying bed rest or back-extension exercises. So once your doctor has confirmed that there's no serious underlying problem, you should get up and about as soon as possible. Unless the symptoms are severe, low-stress exercises like walking, swimming and stationary biking are O.K. For the pain, over-the-counter medications are acceptable.

When it comes to exercise, don't take sides. Some back pain may come from favoring one side of the body over the other. Golfers, tennis players, baseball players and even assembly-line workers all make repeated movements that rotate the back in one direction only or use muscle groups mainly on the dominant side of their bodies. Over time, these one-sided motions can add up to muscle strain.

One way to reverse this trend is to stretch in the opposite direction. Take a few opposite-handed practice swings before you step up to the plate, or alternate between right- and left-handed methods to complete a task. Dr. Young points out that you should always stretch both sides of your body when preparing for exercise. Make sure your stretching program accounts for everything from head to toe.

Consider potassium bicarbonate. Our bodies produce acids as a by-product of normal metabolic processes. One of the reasons that bones weaken with age is that the body raids bone tissue for basic calcium salts to neutralize these acids. There are two potential ways to stop this chain of events: Produce less acid or find another source to neutralize it.

A new study conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, suggests that potassium bicarbonate can keep the bone's calcium salts from being put on acid-fighting duty. When 18 postmenopausal women were given daily doses of potassium-bicarbonate tablets, their bones released significantly less calcium into their bloodstreams. Anthony Sebastian, M.D., who directed the research, points out that it will take a larger study before conclusive recommendations can be made. And the safety of potassium bicarbonate has to be determined. (The specially formulated tablets used for the research aren't commercially available.) But you can obtain potassium bicarbonate by eating lots of fruits and vegetables--foods that provide the body with the raw materials needed to make potassium bicarbonate.

You can decrease the amount of acid your body has to deal with by reducing your intake of meat, fish and eggs. These foods prompt the body to produce acid.

SOURCES: Sydney Lou Bonnick, M.D., director, osteoporosis services, Center for Research on Women's Health, Texas Woman's University, Denton; James O. Judge, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, Traveler's Center on Aging, University of Connecticut; Miriam E. Nelson, Ph.D., research scientist and exercise physiologist, Tufts University USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Boston; Anthony Sebastian, M.D., professor of medicine and co-director, General Clinical Research Center, University of California, San Francisco; Jeffrey Young, M.D., assistant professor, physical medicine and rehabilitation, North- western University Medical School, co-director, sports rehabilitation program, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

PHOTO (COLOR): health

CARTOON: excercise

CARTOON: swinging a bat

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