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Is Walking Enough for My Longevity and Function?

August 22nd 2022
We all have heard the health mantra “10 000 steps a day,” but is simply walking the equivalent of 5 miles a day helpful for our longevity and function as we age? The simple answer is: it is not enough. Research has found, in those over the age of 50, that low muscular strength in the legs is independently associated with a higher risk of mortality(1). Low strength in the legs had a higher risk when compared to other risk factors such as metabolic disease (diabetes, high blood pressure, triglycerides) and other comorbidities such as cancer and kidney disease (1). So what is happening to our bodies at 50?

We may be even unaware of it happening, but our musculoskeletal system slowly changes in the early decades of middle age before accelerating. At 50, muscle mass, strength and power decreases 1–2% per year, and then by 3% each year after 60 (2). But why does this all matter? This is because muscle strength and power, not the number of steps, strongly determines our ability to function independently when we reach age 60 and beyond (3). Basic tasks we take for granted such as walking on uneven ground, carrying groceries, picking up our grandchildren, climbing stairs and ultimately preventing falls all depend on the strength.

The Role of Progressive Resistance Training

So what can we do? Fortunately, our aging muscles are plastic and will respond if the stimulus is strong and intense enough (2). Current science has shown that progressive resistance training (PRT) for the lower body is prophylactic and effective for managing the effects of aging on our neuromuscular system (3, 4). PRT involves forcing the leg muscles to push or pull against an external load, and this load will be increased overtime as we get stronger. Examples include heel raises, side-step squat, and lunges beginning at body-weight and progressing with weights. The systematic evidence around this subject (66 studies with 3 788 subjects) has concluded that PRT is an effective way in improve muscle strength and relevant outcomes such as improving walking speed (5).

Improvements in strength and power from PRT sessions can be seen in as little as 12 weeks (4). In one study from Denmark, 65 women between ages 60 to 80 were subjected to two training sessions a week that included calf raises, leg presses and hamstring curls at 75-80% of their maximum lifting capacity and where later found to have significant improvements in jumping, knee strength and power (4). Another American study with a similar protocol has shown that elderly men aged 90 have similar strength and muscle gains to that of 20–30 year old men after 6 months of training (6). These gains in strength carry over to daily life as participants in strength studies were able to walk and climb stairs faster (7).

The general idea these studies are conveying is that the exercise (PRT) helping this population is very different than meeting the 10 000 step criteria (other than involving the legs). It is a specific form of exercise tailored to improve our function and quality of life as we age.

Written By:
Waldo Cheung, Registered Physiotherapist, MPT, MSC, BKIN

Disclaimer: The content on this site is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used as a substitute on for any diagnostic, treatment purpose, or professional medical advice. Using the information on this post or links is at the reader’s own risk. Readers should not ignore, or delay in obtaining medical advice for any medical condition they may have, and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.

References:

1. Li, R., Xia, J., Zhang, X. I., Gathirua-Mwangi, W. G., Guo, J., Li, Y., ... & Song, Y. (2018). Associations of muscle mass and strength with all-cause mortality among US older adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 50(3), 458.

2. Aagaard P, Suetta C, Caserotti P, Magnusson SP, Kjær M. Role of the nervous system in sarcopenia and muscle atrophy with aging: strength training as a countermeasure. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports. 2010 Feb;20(1):49–64.

3. Reid KF, Fielding RA. Skeletal muscle power: a critical determinant of physical functioning in older adults. Exercise and sport sciences reviews. 2012 Jan;40(1):4.

4. Caserotti P, Aagaard P, Buttrup Larsen J, Puggaard L. Explosive heavy‚Äźresistance training in old and very old adults: changes in rapid muscle force, strength and power. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports. 2008 Dec;18(6):773–82

5. Latham NK, Anderson CS, Bennett DA, Stretton C. Progressive resistance strength training for physical disability in older people. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2003(2).

6. Roth SM, Martel GF, Ivey FM, Lemmer JT, Tracy BL, Metter EJ, Hurley BF, Rogers MA. Skeletal muscle satellite cell characteristics in young and older men and women after heavy resistance strength training. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences. 2001 Jun 1;56(6):B240–7.

7. Kalapotharakos, V. I., Michalopoulos, M., Tokmakidis, S. P., Godolias, G., & Gourgoulis, V. (2005). Effects of a heavy and a moderate resistance training on functional performance in older adults. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 19(3), 652-657.

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