by Shari and Nina
I recently wrote a post (see Aging: Terms and Theories) about how little scientists understand about the aging process. However, even if scientists don't understand why we age, medical professionals observe the results of the aging process in our changing bodies. Because strength is such an important factor in our ability to continue to be healthy and independent as we age, I decided to talk with Shari about the relationship between strength and aging. —Nina
Q: Is it true that as we age, we tend to lose strength?
A: How does one define strength? Is it a combination of ease of movement throughout space? Is it how much weight we can lift or push? Is it our mental acuity and belief systems? Is it the capacity for action? Strength is a concept that can be addressed on multiple levels when we discuss the process of aging.
Some people have such indomitable will that they force their bodies to do what they want with utter conviction Some people have the mental strength to take what life throws at them and always put a positive spin on it no matter what the circumstances may be. Some people always appear to be at ease in whatever situation they find themselves. And some people are vital and engaging, and radiate joy.
However, if we talk about it in only muscular skeletal concerns then, yes, there is a change in physical strength as we age. The term “sarcopenia” refers to the degenerative loss of muscle mass and strength that is associated with aging.
Sarcopenia is due to many factors. The composition of our muscle fibers changes from being able to contract quickly and explosively to slower contraction rates. There are also changes in how the information is transmitted through the central nervous system and the “rate of processing information” slows down. There are also changes in our proprioceptive system, that is, in how we sense where our body and its various parts are in space. Our range of motion may change with a decrease in our stamina and our overall flexibility due to system trauma (acute and chronic diseases, decrease in endurance and cardiovascular efficiency). And our genetic predisposition to disease will also affect our overall strength.
Q: Why is it important for us to keep up with strength building as we age?
A: The common adage “use it or loose it” should be our mantra for healthy aging. Our bodies need to keep moving in whatever capacity we can! To continue to move builds strong bones. To continue to move encourages cardiovascular health and respiratory health. To continue to move diminishes depression. To continue to move allows us to maintain our independence. The list of the benefits of movement goes on and on.
But I think attitude is primary in healthy aging. Acceptance is a very yogic principle and we don’t need to give it a fancy Sanskrit name. Graceful acceptance of our changes as ways to embark on new paths is different from mourning what you can’t do, and looking to the past instead of the present is overwhelmingly demoralizing. Positive thinking and acceptance is healthier overall, all while not ignoring any changes. To find equilibrium, we need to progressively continue to “push our limits” while also respecting our limitations.
Q: How can yoga help us maintain strength as we age?
To answer the question on how to maintain strength as we age with yoga I would say commit yourself to a one-pose practice daily. When that is easy and doable because you don’t miss a day, then increase it to two poses, then three poses, and so on. I would say work on something that challenges your balance first and then work on something that challenges your strength. Isometric holds in yoga build strength so do whichever pose you want and time it for 20 seconds to start. Yoga is not on the fast track. It is slow, consistent practice that pays off.
Q: Which are some of your favorite strength building poses and why?
A: My favorite pose right now is Plank pose on your forearms (rather than just on your hands). This version builds core strength and doesn’t hurt your wrists. But my “favorite” strength building pose changes depending on how my body is feeling on any particular day.
For simple leg strengthening, Utkatasana (Chair or Fierce Pose) is a favorite. If the full pose is not accessible to you, you can practice it by learning how to get up off a chair without using your arms. And if that variation isn’t possible, you can learn to sit down without using your arms.
Warrior 2 (Virabhadra 2) is another good leg strengthener. If you can’t do the full pose in the middle of the room, you can start by sitting on a chair. While still seated, position your legs into the Warrior 2 stance, and then slowly lift up off the chair.
Side Plank pose (Vasithasana) done standing up with one hand on the wall builds lateral torso strength as well as arm strength. If you have wrist problems, you can place your entire forearm on the wall, rather than just your hand.