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Two Weeks of Reduced Steps Causes Muscle Wasting and Fat Gain

It is well known that enforced bed rest or casting of a broken limb causes severe muscle atrophy. Recent studies demonstrated that 80% reduction in step count for only two weeks caused a reduction in aerobic capacity, muscle loss, and visceral fat gain in young adults. Less well understood is the impact of reduced activity in older adults. Researchers at McMaster University in Canada and colleagues in the UK performed a study to find out. The results will make young and old think long and hard about the consequences of inactivity. As senior researcher Stuart Phillips told me, “It’s just not a good idea to sit around.”

The details are a shot across the bow for people who spend large portions of their day immobile.

Researchers led by Leigh Breen, Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, recruited ten healthy older adults (5 men and 5 women, average age 72) to remain as sedentary as possible, taking no more than 1,500 steps per day, for 14 days. Participants were measured for changes in insulin sensitivity, body composition, and other factors. Muscle biopsies were also taken to determine changes in muscle protein metabolism.

Daily step count averaged 1413, a reduction of about 76%. Participants were moderately active before the study.

Leg fat-free mass was reduced by 4%. Insulin sensitivity was reduced by 43%. Inflammation was increased by 25%. Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) was reduced by 26% after eating. In addition, total body and trunk fat increased by 7% and 3%, respectively.

Given the short period of step reduction, the results were remarkable and foreboding.

“In conclusion,” Breen et al wrote, “we have demonstrated that 14 days of reduced ambulation in older adults results in a loss of leg lean mass and gains in trunk adiposity. The blunted post-prandial [after eating] rates of MPS may underpin the deleterious ‘shift’ in body composition following inactivity in older adults and may be linked to impairments in insulin sensitivity and/or modest elevations in systemic inflammation.”

Inactivity blunts muscle protein synthesis. Muscles lose their ability to repair themselves and grow. Your muscles waste away, causing your metabolism to slow--and creeping obesity to take over.

These negative effects may be of greater concern to the elderly, who tend to be less active than young people.

While muscle atrophy and impaired muscle metabolism following a single period of inactivity is about the same for young and old, the researchers “postulate that increasingly frequent periods of disuse, coupled with a decline in physical activity in older adults, may lead to loses in muscle mass from which older people do not fully recover.”

Sedentary living does bad things for young and old. The problem is that the old may never recover.

(The Breen study was published online April 15, 2013, in the Journal of Clinical Endocrine Metabolism.)

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The August, 2013, issue of Runner’s World calls sitting “The New Smoking.” People who work out regularly sit as much as couch potatoes—and average of 64 hours a week, nine hours a day. That’s a problem. The more you sit, the poorer your health and the sooner you may die. “No matter how fit you are.”

Sitting essentially puts your muscles to sleep. Runner’s World has some ideas on how to wake them up. I’ll tell you some of them, and add a few of my own.

You can buy a pedometer and make sure you record enough steps during the day. There are, of course, many ways to run up your step count. You can do it with or without a pedometer.  

Runner’s World shows some gadgets to keep you moving during the day, treadmill desks and the like. (RW writer Mark Remy wasn't too hot on the treadmill desk, but liked the adjustable stand-up desk.) RW also suggests ways to keep you moving on the job, such as timers to remind you to standup periodically, meeting in the hallway instead of the conference room, taking phone calls standing up, and ways to move and stretch. The key is to be mindful of the need to move around during the day; use your imagination to put motion into whatever it is you do.

I start my day with a 5 or 10 minute “Morning Motion” routine that moves my hands, elbows, shoulders, back, etc, all parts of my body. I constantly change what I do and make it fun. I follow up with a 10 minute walk. It’s a delightful way to get moving and wake up. I also take several short walks, at noon, mid-afternoon, and in the evening, whenever is convenient. In addition, I get up, stretch, and move around regularly when working at my desk or computer.

My favorite is a rhythmic body-extension motion; see photos below. I bend over with my back straight doing a partial squat, while swinging my arms down and behind my body, and then extend my body, swinging my arms up and over my head, coming up on my toes. (I stay on the ground to avoid unnecessary pounding.) This whole-body movement can be done anyplace. I do 6 to 12 reps numerous times during the day, whenever I feel the need to rev up my body. I sometimes do it in the middle of a walk. 

Moving around like this during the day keeps my body and brain awake, making me more productive and creative. If it also keeps me healthy and makes me live longer, it’s a wonderful bonus.       


                                                                                                       Photos by Carol Bass

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