18 months ago I was boarding a train to Scotland, when something life-changing happened. It was one of those small quiet moments of epiphany, an everyday moment but one that left me dazed and shaken. The train was very full (remember those days?) and the only place for my small-ish suitcase was in the overhead luggage rack. I picked up my suitcase, preparing to toss it onto the rack, only to realise that I couldn’t raise it beyond shoulder-height. I stood in that packed compartment, my arms trembling, my suitcase wobbling. All around me, students were casually flinging their bags and backpacks onto the rack, while I scavenged for a space beneath the table, mortified, furious, and unexpectedly distressed at my sudden loss of independence.
For years I’d carried toddlers and children who weighed considerably more than my overnight case, lifting them in and out of car-seats, climbing frames, trees. But in the decade since, my strength had leached away. I vowed then and there to rebuild my muscle. But I didn’t want to pump iron in a gym, so I found a way to build muscle on the sly (I’m rather proud of mine now). My mantra since that fateful day has been ‘I will lift my own suitcase until I die… I will lift my own suitcase until I die…’
The train moment flashed back to me yesterday, when a friend told me that her mother had lost so much muscle mass she could no longer get up from a chair on her own. This is a condition called sarcopenia, it’s increasingly common, and it’s still not widely known about. A few days ago I received an email from the American Alliance for Aging Research – currently running a campaign to draw attention to sarcopenia.
Muscle wastage sets in before we hit 30, with some researchers suggesting the age of 27 is the turning point. It accelerates in our 50s, with men losing muscle more quickly and more dramatically, although this may be because they have more to lose in the first place. Studies are wonderfully clear – all activity is good but resistance (weight) training is the most beneficial. Moreover, those who start strength training in mid-life are – predictably – less likely to get sarcopenia later on. The government currently recommends we do two sessions of resistance or weight training a week, although research covered in a previous post suggests that 10 minutes a day is perfectly fine.
Anyway, as I sat on the train to Scotland (a charming student having stowed my suitcase on the overhead luggage rack with an ease that made me green with envy), I pondered my predicament, opened my laptop and began combing through pubmed, the global database of peer-reviewed scientific reports where I spend an indecent amount of time. I also thought back to my parents and grandparents who never went to a gym, but who regularly carried suitcases (remember the ones we used before wheelie cases?), who always carried heavy bags of shopping (no supermarket delivery man carrying bags to the fridge door), who lifted baskets of firewood, who cooked in cast-iron pans the weight of several bricks, who hoiked roots from the soil etc etc. And who never suffered from sarcopenia.
I’ll come back to my weight-training programme in a second, because this is the single most important things we can do to maintain our physical independence in old age. To boot, we now know that as our muscles deteriorate, so do our brain cells. In the meantime I’ve rechecked the latest research and here are a few other things we need to do:
Eat a healthy diet. High consumption of vegetables, fruit, oily fish and whole-grains has been associated with a stronger grip (a sign we still have muscle strength and one of the indicators used by doctors to see how well we’re ageing). Protein, Vitamin D, C and β-carotene are of particular importance for muscles. A recent study from my alma mater found that although vitamin C is important for muscles, an orange and a portion of peas (or equivalent) every day are quite sufficient.
Omega 3 is also critical for muscle. One study showed that for each portion of oily fish consumed, grip strength increased by 0.43kg in men and 0.48kg in women. Supplements have also been trialled and found effective for muscle, so if you don’t like oily fish take a supplement.
So. Muscle-strengthening. Muscles need to be contracted in three ways: concentric – that’s the movement involved when we lift a weight and the muscle fibres shorten and the muscle lengthens; eccentric – that’s the movement used when we lower a weight and the whole muscle lengthens; and isometric – that’s the continued contraction when we carry an object and the muscle must remain tense for a prolonged period.
In terms of my suitcase, when I lift it onto the rack my muscle contracts concentrically. When I lift it down from the rack, my muscle contracts eccentrically. And if I carry the case, my muscle contracts isometrically. The muscle needs all three movements to stay in peak form. The latter contraction – isometric – gets little attention now unless you’re a body builder or a furniture remover. It’s often referred to as ‘loaded carry.’ And it’s important.
Loaded carry works many sets of muscles in one fell swoop. When we carry bags of shopping, for example, we work our arms and shoulders but also our abdominals, our core, and our leg muscles (if we’re walking at the same time). With every step, we also work on our stability and balance. If we intersperse our walk-with-bags with a few minutes of raising and lowering our shopping bags (a sort of walking bicep curl), we make all three contractions, putting our arm and shoulder muscles through their full paces. Meanwhile we get Vitamin D from the sun, Nitric Oxide from breathing fresh air through our nose, social interaction from greeting passers-by and increased aerobic fitness from our ‘weighted’ walk (which I wrote about last week). We also reduce the amount of pollution circulating in the air because we’re not in our cars.
I think you can see where this is going. I didn’t want to sit on machines in a gym (even less so during COVID) so I started doing my shopping on foot, carrying the bags – as my mother and granny did all their lives. I know many people can’t do this, but I have no excuse. Alternatively you could park your car at the back of the car park and leave the trolley at the supermarket door so you walk for a few minutes with your loaded carry.
I stopped letting Mr Age-Well lift my suitcase, pack the car or anything else weight-bearing. On planes I stubbornly insisted on lifting all the family cases in and out of the overhead lockers. I took every opportunity to lift and carry, following advice about how to do this without hurting oneself (bend from the knees not the waist, turn with the feet not the torso, never carry more than is comfortable). I carted log baskets, lifted furniture, lugged boxes of books to the Oxfam shop. And I’m now (probably) stronger than I’ve ever been.
I also use hand-weights and do a few squats and the odd plank (which is an example of loaded carry) while watching TV or chatting to my family. Incidentally, doing one arm is better than doing none. A fascinating study, reported this week, demonstrates that only working one arm (if you’re in a sling for example) preserves and creates muscle mass in both arms. Somehow the brain sends a message to the non-working arm, ensuring it remains active…Yet another example of how extraordinary our bodies are.
My point is this: if you want to keep your health and your independence, but don’t have the time, money or inclination to do regular weight-lifting programmes with a personal trainer or in a gym (which may be in lockdown anyway), you can build strength in other ways. I have no intention of returning to the suitcases my granny used (who doesn’t love a wheelie case?) but I rather enjoy my walk-with-shopping which ticks numerous boxes without me having to wear a stitch of lycra! Body-builders call this move (heavy bag in each hand) the ‘farmer’s carry’ and they practice it with barbells and sandbags. Perhaps they should help out with the shopping a bit more…
Finally, I’ve been reading the autobiography of traveller and adventurer, Freya Stark. It’s full of wonderful lines about the power of ageing. This one resonated with me: The unexpectedness of life, waiting round every corner, catches even wise women unawares, to avoid corners altogether is, after all, to refuse to live.
I’m preparing for those corners, those little unexpected bits of life – by ensuring I can (at the very least) lift, grip and carry.
Any ideas for everyday weight training on the sly? Please do share them…