What do you think of when you hear the word ‘muscles’?
Body builders in the gym, sweating and wearing vests that hardly fit? The Incredible Hulk!?
We don’t all have to have muscles like that of course, but muscles are super important; our bodies would not move without them! Our brain sends a signal to our muscles to contract and that makes our bones move. That is how we move around, how we lift and carry and do all the other things we do to function. But did you know that from the age of 30 to the age of 90 we lose 50% of our muscles? It sounds crazy but it’s true! The video and blog below explain why our muscles are so important and what we all need to do to look after them.
We all need to be working on our muscles to make sure that at the very least, we at least maintain them. But by just maintaining them they will still reduce, so we actually really need to be increasing our muscle mass. Every time we take a muscle to its limit it grows, but when we don’t take it to the limit it declines, reduces in size.
And so it’s no good just using muscles in day-to-day tasks, like picking things up, or carrying shopping. We need to be taking our muscles to the limit in order for them to grow and that means using them until they are exhausted, until the point that you can’t do any more. This means working to your limit no one else’s and that could be doing something like push-ups against the wall or a kitchen work surface until your muscles are so fatigued that they can’t carry on.
Why is it important to look after and grow our muscles? There are the obvious things like strength: we will be stronger, we will be able to lift and carry more, and we’ll be able to carry ourselves better. With good muscle tone not only will muscles look better, but they will ‘hang’ better on our bodies. If you had no muscle tone you would be like a jellyfish; with lots of muscle tone you’d be ‘beefed up’, more like the Michelin Man! You want to aim for a good balance of good posture and good muscle tone.
Muscles also help with BMR: our Basal Metabolic Rate, or the number of calories that we burn just by existing. As your muscle mass reduces, so does your BMR. As people get older they often think that they are fighting against their age, suddenly finding that they put on fat a bit more easily. But the reality is that our body composition will have changed and we won’t be burning as many calories anymore. It could be a difference of as much as 500 or more calories a day, so that change in body composition will really make a difference.
Having more muscle and stronger muscles helps with our stamina too, it means that we can continue doing things for longer, not just helping us do everyday activities but also improving our flexibility and aiding our joints. Building muscles also helps to build the bones and improve bone density as they adapt to carry the additional mass. Carrying that extra muscle is equivalent to doing weight-bearing exercise all the time.
Maintaining strong muscles also helps your body to handle insulin better. If you have a problem with insulin levels, for example, insulin resistance, polycystic ovary syndrome, diabetes, or if you are pre-diabetic, then building muscles can be especially important.
And that’s not all. There are also the emotional benefits you will get from doing any kind of exercise; the endorphins and adrenaline that can boost your mood, improved sleep, and the simple enjoyment you get from moving your body and doing the work.
What kind of muscle work should you be doing? As with any exercise, finding something you enjoy is a great place to start. You might have heard about things like resistance bands: stretchy, big elastic bands that you can pull, which are a good choice. Of course, using weights, either at home or in the gym is another option. But the problem with weights is that you’ll notice you build strength quite quickly, but will soon need to increase the weight you are lifting and it may not be feasible to have multiple weights at home. This is why it is good to go to the gym if you especially like weight training, because they have a whole range of different sizes there.
But the good news is that you really don’t need ‘proper’ equipment at all; you can use household objects like milk bottles, tins or bags full of things instead. In my circuits class I sometimes suggest people use a rucksack full of tin cans, and they can just put as many in as they want. You can be creative and use other things you have around the house too, but actually the best thing is just to use your own body weight. You’ve always got it with you and you can alter the level you work at; everyone can work to their own exhaustion level where the muscles reach their limits and grow.
You may have heard people talking about weight-bearing or resistance exercise in terms of how many ‘reps’ or ‘sets’ you should do. Unless you are training for an endurance event or entering a powerlifting or weightlifting competition, then sticking with 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise is a good guide. And the key is that between the numbers 8 and 12 you start to feel exhausted; your muscles don’t want to carry on and you want to stop. So have a rest, but aim for about 3 sets of those 8 to 12 repetitions. Of course, you need to make sure that you target all your muscles with different exercises, and then do the sets once or twice a week for each muscle group.
If that all sounds a bit too complicated, you may find it easier to do a couple of classes online each week, where someone is taking you through what to do and you can follow along. There are classes you can do online, such as circuits, intervals, high intensity interval training, pilates, or kettlebells, that should be suitable for all levels and tick all these boxes. You could also follow a simple exercise plan; some of the people on my courses follow a 5-day, 12-minutes-a-day exercise plan, which is very simple and straightforward.
Whatever you do, the best thing you can do is make a start! You could do some squats while brushing your teeth, or some push-ups against the kitchen wall while you are waiting for the kettle to boil. You could hold some tin cans or milk bottles above your head, taking them back and down and up again, to work the back of your arms. Anything that gets your muscles working to their limit will get you started on reversing the trend, helping your muscles to grow rather than decline, and you will feel so many benefits in all areas of your life.
If you’d like to join an online Fitfish exercise class, these take place 3-4 times a week at the moment. They are suitable for all levels and you can book via the website.
Fitfish also runs a closed Facebook group called ‘Motivationfish’ which is open to anyone for support and encouragement. In that group we have ‘Muscle Monday’: a chance to be accountable and to talk about what you’re doing to work on your muscles.
Our Healthy Whole and Free Courses also incorporate ideas and opportunities for exercise and you would be very welcome to join us when we start the next one.