The strength of both our muscles and bones is what enables us to move through the world, whether we are taking a long hike in the mountains, carrying a bag of groceries, or just getting out of bed in the morning. Unfortunately, the natural aging process affects the strength of both, as I will describe in detail below. And because both your muscles and bones contribute to your overall strength, loss in one is typically associated with loss in the other. I think it’s important to understand this because you can use yoga to maintain the strength of both your muscles and your bones, which can make a big difference in your life. (My post earlier this week Yoga for Healthy Aging Strength Sequences provides a whole selection of different sequences you can practice that will help build both muscle and bone strength.)
However, if you don’t actively work to maintain the strength of your muscles and bones, as you age, increasing physical weakness could even lead to an inability to live independently because even the simplest daily activities, such as getting out of a chair, and walking up or down the stairs, require strength. And lack of ability to balance due to weakness is going to increase the risk of falling, which is a serious problem for older people. That’s why today I thought I’d provide a little overview of how aging affects both muscle and bone strength in the hopes that it will inspire you to practice yoga for strength. (See Techniques for Strength Building with Yoga for basic tips about how to do this.)
Muscles and Aging
We have over 640 muscles in our body, and starting as early as our thirties, these muscles gradually lose strength. This natural aging process, called “skeletal muscle atrophy,” causes your muscle cells and fibers to become smaller and weaker, leading to a loss of muscle mass, quality, and strength. The rate at which we lose muscle strength varies from person to person, and is also influenced by:
1. Behavioral factors. Working at a sedentary desk job or not exercising are the most obvious behaviors that contribute to loss of strength over time, although these can be counteracted by becoming more active.
2. Genetic factors. Your body type can influence how weak you become with age, due to the natural size of your muscles when you are younger. If you tend to have larger muscles as a young adult, you simply have more muscle mass to lose as you age before you become weak. On the other hand, if you’re someone who tends not to bulk up easily, without intervention, you may become weaker more quickly as you age. Although you cannot change your body type, if you have not already started to do so, you can begin building up your muscles now as a preventative measure. Yoga’s strength-building poses and techniques provide an excellent way to do this (see Techniques for Strength Building with Yoga). All things being equal, men and women likely have a similar rate of loss of muscle strength as they age, that is until women reach menopause, at which time the more rapid loss of bone they experience (see below) contributes to greater loss of muscle strength as well. So at that phase of life and even leading up to it, women need to be particularly focused on maintaining muscle strength.
3. Environmental factors. Scarcity of healthy food (malnutrition, for example, worsens skeletal muscle atrophy) and environmental toxins are the most obvious environmental factors that can contribute to loss of strength, so if possible, try to keep yourself protected.
Although skeletal muscle atrophy is caused by aging itself, other factors, such as muscle disuse (sedentary lifestyle, joint injuries, arthritis, strokes), certain illnesses that affect nerve and blood supply to muscles or have other negative effects on muscles (diabetes, cancer, and chronic infections like HIV/AIDS, to name just a few), and medications that can weaken or damage muscles (such as prednisone and chemotherapy agents) can accelerate this process. So if you have any of these conditions, using yoga to address them—whether that means by simply starting to move again or by actively improving your health, such as improving diabetes control through stress management and exercise—could slow down loss of strength over time.
For some people—whether due to illness, long-time inactivity or just very advanced age—loss of muscle mass can become a serious problem if it falls well below the average muscle mass of the general population. This advanced stage of skeletal muscle atrophy is sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is the disease stage of skeletal muscle atrophy, just as osteopenia and osteoporosis are two disease stages of aging-related bone loss.
Naturally, this serious loss of muscle mass—which is accompanied by significant muscle weakness—is something we want to avoid if at all possible because serious muscle weakness is one of the main factors that can lead to loss of independence, not to mention of enjoyment of activities that you love. Fortunately, gentle forms of yoga can help even very elderly or weak people regain strength.
Bones and Aging
We have 204 bones in our skeletons and, like our muscles, those bones undergo changes as we age. Bones slowly and gradually become thinner and weaker as we age, though it is only when they reach a certain degree of thinness that you are at greater risk of a fracture from a fall or prolonged poor postural habits (for example, wedge fractures in the thoracic spine). The rate at which we lose bone strength varies from person to person, and is influenced by:
1. Behavioral factors. The same behavioral factors that have a negative effect on muscle strength—such as working at a sedentary desk job or not exercising —contribute to bone loss over time, although these too can be counteracted by becoming more active.
2. Genetic factors. Your body type can influence how weak your bones become with age. Some people just naturally have thinner bones, so they have less bone mass to lose before bones become weak and brittle. And for women, hormonal changes during menopause accelerate the rate of bone loss, which is why more women develop osteoporosis after their fifties. Although you cannot change your body type or gender, if you have not already started to do so, you can begin strengthening your bones now as a preventative measure. Yoga’s strength-building poses and techniques provide an excellent way to do this (see Techniques for Strength Building with Yoga).
3. Environmental factors. The same environmental factors that have a negative effect on muscle strength—such as scarcity of healthy food and environmental toxins—can contribute to bone loss, so for both muscle and bone strength, try to keep yourself protected.
While everyone’s bones thin somewhat as they age, for many people, due to advanced age, illness or medications, or menopause for women, bone thinning can reach a critical point, called osteoporosis. At this stage, the bones are more vulnerable to fractures, which can then be slower to heal due to the bone’s thinness. (Osteopenia is the stage of bone loss just before full osteoporosis, when you are already starting to be at risk for fractures from falls, but not to the same degree as with osteoporosis.)
Because body type and gender influence how weak bones become with age, smaller-boned people and women in general are at greater risk of developing osteoporosis at younger ages than those with thicker, bigger bones or men. However, for people over 65, developing osteoporosis is very common, with up to 50% of women and 25 percent of men developing it.
For those with osteoporosis, the bones of the thoracic spine (your mid-spine) are at the greatest risk for fracture, followed by the wrist bones and the femur bone (thigh bone) in the hip joint. These fractures can lead to ongoing chronic pain, physical disability, and, particularly with hip fractures, premature death. Naturally, this is something we’d all like to avoid. Fortunately, yoga strength-building poses and techniques can actually reverse bone loss (see Techniques for Strength Building with Yoga), and practicing yoga balance poses is helpful for preventing falls (see Techniques for Improving Balance).
* This article was originally published here