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It's not uncommon as we age for us to develop osteoarthritis, inflammation caused by damage to the articular cartilage (protective lining of bones), leading to bone rubbing on bone. As a result, movement can be painful, causing you to move less, and less movement means smaller and weaker muscles. In turn, less muscle mass contributes to a host of health problems, including obesity, elevated blood lipids and cholesterol, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and eventually Type 2 diabetes.
Sound familiar? It should, as these problems are rampant in the American population, especially among those of us getting up in years, and lost muscle mass is a big factor.
There is a gradual loss of muscle mass beginning in the mid-thirties, and progressing with age, accelerating after age 60, and really taking off after age 70. Ultimately, the typical American at age 80 has only about half the muscle mass they had in their younger years and a lot more body fat.
Is muscle loss inevitable? Yes, but you can greatly reduce the degree of loss if you put in the time and effort.
If osteoarthritis is not too advanced and too painful, resistance training (lifting weights) can be the answer, especially for older folks. Admittedly, I know the idea of resistance training with arthritic joints seems absurd at first, but lots of older folks are out there lifting weights. I see them regularly at my gym.
Kudos to them for being there and exercising, but let me add that oftentimes what I see are older folks simply “going through the motions,” and it’s obvious they could be doing more. This is better than nothing, of course, but if you are going to put forth the time and effort to go to the gym, why not maximize the benefits? This means you need to challenge your muscles, stress them, push them out of their comfort zone to fatigue, make them want to change and get stronger.
But, if the joints are compromised with osteoarthritis, how is it possible to push the muscles hard enough? In confronting this problem in my own life, I suggest an approach I have used for years. It can “trick” the muscles, manipulating the situation so that the muscles are challenged, but the joints are not required to bear the brunt of the load.
How to pre-exhaust your muscles to get stronger
Let me start with some advice for all, especially for older folks. Do not jump into your workout immediately when lifting a weight or pushing on a resistance machine. Spend time moving the joints you are about to engage, gradually increasing through the full range of motion, again and again. Next, repeatedly flex and extend the muscles you are about to use. These preliminary efforts will lubricate the joints and prepare the muscles, getting them ready to work. And when you start, perform each repetition slowly, in a very strict fashion, and without momentum.
As emphasized above, arthritic joints may not be able to handle the amount of stress needed to challenge the muscles and make them stronger. The answer is a “pre-exhaustion” approach. Instead of lifting a 60-pound barbell 10-times and doing curls for the biceps muscles, first, lift 30- pounds and do as many curls as possible (perhaps 30, 40 or more), fatiguing the biceps. Rest only briefly, just long enough to take a few breaths, then repeat, this time lifting 40-pounds. Because the biceps muscles were “pre-exhausted” with 30-pounds, 40-pounds will feel much heavier and will challenge the muscles in a similar way 60- pounds would if the muscles were fresh. The good news is, stress on the joints will be much less, even though the biceps muscle is being challenged adequately.
How resistance training can help challenge your aging muscles
Another approach works well when using machines with a weight stack. To adjust the weight, you pull out a pin and reinsert it at the desired weight. This makes changing the weight quick and easy. I suggest starting low on the weight stack with a light weight you can lift for high repetitions (30 or more) as a warmup. Rest only the time it takes to remove the pin and reinsert it at the next higher level, then do it again. Keep working your way up the weight stack.
The good news is, the lighter weights help prepare the muscles for a greater challenge ahead. They also gradually pre-exhaust the muscles so that a lighter weight is perceived as heavier and more challenging to the muscles.
How to use resistance bands to get stronger
Finally, if weights don’t feel right to you, or if you don’t think you are ready, resistance bands are a good starting point. But you still need to push your muscles to fatigue to get any benefit. Eventually, if you can, move forward and challenge your muscles with weight training. The rewards will be well worth the effort.
Why resistance training can help fight osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis can make joint movements painful, especially at first, but ironically, exercise is the best non-drug medicine. Resistance training is a highly effective approach, and the pre-exhaustion method can help preserve strength and muscle mass, increasing the odds you will be able to keep using your joints to do all the things you need to do in the years ahead.
Reach Bryant Stamford, a professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Hanover College, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: How resistance training, exercise can help fight osteoarthritis