Muscle shrinkage comes with aging
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I was my state’s wrestling champion in 1944, when I was a high-school senior. I became an accountant and haven’t done any real physical activity since high school. I am 6 feet tall and weigh 175 pounds. My doctor says I’m in excellent health, but I have no strength. I find it hard to get out of a chair. My doctor fluffs this off. He says I should be grateful for being so healthy. I don’t think weakness is healthy. Can you shed any light on this? — K.R.
ANSWER: If I’ve done the arithmetic correctly, you’re 83. You’re suffering from sarcopenia, a word that creeps into all articles on aging. It’s a loss of muscle tissue and a decrease in strength. Aging is one cause. Inactivity is another. Between the ages of 50 and 80, a person’s muscle reserves diminish by 40 percent, and strength declines by 60 percent. Both can be combated through resistance exercise — lifting weights. The weight doesn’t have to be great. It can be a pound. You don’t have to buy expensive equipment. You can use things you have in the house. A can of beans, for example, weighs about one pound.
As an aside, many older people write me about their loss of balance. Quite often, what’s called loss of balance is really a loss of muscle strength. Resistance exercise can fix this too.
Don’t do any exercise that hurts your joints. Ask your doctor if you’re up to this exercise. Have someone with you when you start a weightlifting program. That person can assist you and can right you if you begin to wobble.
For your arms, a biceps curl is a good start. Holding onto a weight with your arms dangling down at you sides, bring the hands up to the shoulders. Follow with a triceps exercise. With your elbows bent and hands at head level and slightly behind it, straighten the elbow. For legs, practice rising out of a chair — first by using the chair’s arms, then without its arms. Squats — the exercise where you bend the knees while standing — strengthens the large muscles on the front of the thighs. Bend until the thighs are parallel with the ground. You don’t have to go any farther down than that.
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I am a male in my late 60s, 5 feet 8 inches tall and weigh 170 pounds. How much weight-bearing exercise do I need to do for continued good health as I get older? Our YMCA has 12 weight machines in a circuit. What is the minimum amount of weight I should lift on each machine? Each machine must have a different answer, so I don’t know how you can advise easily. If I do Pilates faithfully, do I need to use the weight machines? — L.F.
ANSWER: Pick a weight for each exercise machine that you can lift eight consecutive times. The weight will vary with each machine. Legs can handle more weight than arms.
If you really want to get into it, follow this protocol. After eight consecutive lifts, take a two-minute break. Each lift is a repetition, a rep. A series of lifts is a set. After the rest, perform another set of eight reps and take another rest. If you’re up to it, do a third.
Go at this slowly. You might not need that third set, and you might find two sets too strenuous at first. So don’t try to build Rome in a day. Two or three sessions a week are enough, but not on consecutive days.
When you can do 12 reps, increase the amount of weight lifted and drop down to eight repetitions.
Pilates is a wonderful exercise. It doesn’t build strength. Weightlifting is the only thing that does.
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: You wrote how stair climbing is a great exercise. I thought so too, until I had to climb the stairs at work 10 times a day. In three month’s time, I gained 15 pounds, and my knees got very sore. I probably will have to have surgery on my knees. So much for a “great exercise.” — D.B.
ANSWER: I believe you, but your experience is inexplicable to me. How did the exercise add pounds? Did you increase your calories? Re the knees: Any exercise that causes pain should be stopped.
Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Readers may also order health newsletters from www.rbmamall.com.


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