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The Science of Strength

For Decades We’ve Been Advised of Benefits

   “Strength training is revolutionizing exercise, especially for people over 40, because it can affect so many aspects of our health and decrease the risk for many diseases…nothing else has such a profound effect on how we age.”

Though it may have the ring of verbiage from the latest infomercial, the yellow-letter declaration above is that of Miriam E. Nelson, Ph.D., who has very distinguished job title — and a very long one.

Dr. Nelson is at the time of this original writing (deep breath) associate chief of the human physiology laboratory and assistant professor at Tufts School of Nutrition Science and Policy at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center for Aging. That’s a staid and prestigious institution near Boston. Her research work also prompted publication of a book whose title carries an important message: Strong Women Stay Young (1997, Bantam Books, now available in paperback).

“Older people typically have three or four chronic diseases, but pervasive weakness is a major underlying problem,” said Dr. Nelson, quoted in an article from the Tufts University magazine.

Her book was the second inspired from research at Tufts. Several years earlier Drs. Irwin Rosenberg and William D. Evans synthesized Tufts studies into Biomarkers: The 10 Keys to Prolonging Vitality (1992, Fireside).

‘Biomarkers’ Started It

“Biomarkers was the first book to make the case that chronological aging and biological aging were not the same,” said Rosenberg. “It was the first to show that if you do the right things to maintain a healthy body – specifically through exercise and a proper diet – then you can maintain the biological markers of relative youth.”

“Much of what we call aging,” Dr. Evans explained, “is nothing more than the accumulation of a lifetime of inactivity. Muscles shrink. Body fat increases. The results are an increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, and osteoporosis. By preserving muscle mass, we can prevent these problems from occurring.”



Of the normative changes associated with aging, Dr. Evans contends, “it’s changes in muscle mass that may trigger all of the other changes.”

The various Tufts studies demonstrated nursing home residents some as old as 96 — increasing strength by an average of 175 percent. Not just strength, but balance and bone density also improved, resulting in restoration of functional capabilities and a renewed zest for recreational activities.

In recent years another strong advocate of the health benefits of strength training has emerged. Doug McGuff, MD, is an emergency room physician in South Carolina who opened his own strength-training studio a couple decades back and co-authored Body by Science, which outlined his principles of time-efficient exercise. His popularity as a speaker has placed Dr. McGuff into numerous Youtube videos.

Muscling Up Some Minerals

Strength training builds bones, not just muscle.

“You can’t separate the two,” said Dr. Nelson. “When muscles are weak, the bones become thinner and more brittle. When we strength train our muscles we stimulate the bones and promote their build up. Without strong muscle stimulating new bone to form, bone loss will continue unabated and osteoporosis will result. When you build muscles, you build bones.”

The Monarch Foundation in Cincinnati, which works with the elderly, has produced similar research data. But nowhere are bones more under a microscope than in research labs of the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA). Why haven’t we sent a man to Mars.

Microgravity exposure, has pronounced effects on bone tissue. A 1996 report in Experimental Cell Research indicated “astronauts can lose up to 19 percent of weight-bearing bone during long-duration missions.”

A researcher from the Veteran’s Administration reported that:

“Bone loss in space is in many ways analogous to osteoporosis here on earth. The essential environmental change in space is the loss of mechanical force on the body and its skeleton. Basic changes in cell biology and gene expression seen in spaceflight are due to lack of mechanical stress of gravity and probably relate to the loss of mechanical exercise which is seen in our aging population on earth.”

Gravity is good exercise, it seems. In some respects, space travelers experience accelerated aging. So do sedentary earth dwellers, in comparison to those fashioning a fitness life-style.

State of Mind Matters Too

Besides its physical dividends, a fitness life-style also produces a psychological payoff. In fact, Berney Goodman, M.D., claims the body has a way of speaking its mind.

“Somatization,” Dr. Goodman explains, “is a process through which people express emotional discomfort in a physical rather than verbal language. Instead of words, this language consists of unwelcome physical sensations, physical symptoms, and preoccupation with the possibility of medical illness.”

An example would be the headache that follows a grueling day at the office, or an argument with a spouse or child, said Dr. Goodman.
“We all experience occurrences of somatization, whether or not we are aware of them,” said Dr. Goodman. “For the most part, these are related to stress and are normal. We usually identify the physical feelings as stress-induced. These sensations are usually relieved by a drink, a nap, a hot bath, a good dinner, exercise, or a good night’s sleep.”

Admitting that somatization is not particularly well understood or recognized, Dr. Goodman believes “the number of people with somatization symptoms will increase dramatically as we enter the next century. Their individual dramas will be played out on the stage of an increasingly stress-filled world with a backdrop of frequent family disruption, rapid cultural change, and increased attention to, and care of, the body.”

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