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Halting muscle wasting

Slowing the decline of muscle mass is an important step for the health of older men. By Aileen Macalintal

Hot baths and warm blankets may help prevent muscle wastage as we age.

Victoria University exercise physiology expert Dr Aaron Petersen said heat blanket therapy had been shown to increase muscle gains in men doing strength training. Mixed with resistance training, heat therapy in the form of hot baths and blankets may enhance muscle mass or halt muscle wastage.

Petersen said all body muscles deteriorate as one ages, but lower body muscles, or that of the legs, seem to be more affected than the upper body muscles.

“The rate of decline in muscle mass is estimated to be 0.5-1 per cent per year after the age of 25,” he said “however, this rate may increase beyond the age of 65.”

He said sarcopenia, or age-related muscle wasting, has affected nearly one in four adults over 65 years and is the major cause of falls and immobility in the elderly.

“Therapies to arrest or reverse sarcopenia are vital to improve the health, independence, quality of life and longevity of the elderly,” he said.

Petersen said heat therapy is a relatively new and unexplored field of research, and the mechanisms of how heat therapy stimulates muscle growth are not yet thoroughly understood.

“Nonetheless, current evidence suggests that heat therapy activates many of the hormones and enzymes in our muscles that are responsible for promoting muscle growth,” he said.

Heat therapy, he explained, also increases the body’s production of specialised molecules that may help prevent degradation of muscle cells.

“Typically, heat therapy involves heating the muscles for up to 60 minutes before, during or after each workout and should be done two to three times per week,” Petersen said.

“It is believed to work by stimulating the production of naturally occurring protective enzymes in the muscle called ‘heat shock proteins’.”

He explained how resistance exercise, another term for strength exercise or weight lifting exercise can help strengthen muscles.

“Regular weight lifting exercise is currently the best method for increasing muscle size and strength. Unfortunately, some people may be unable or unwilling to perform resistance exercise, which is why we are looking for alternate ways to promote gains in strength and muscle size,” he said.

Heat therapy have used several methods aside from warm blankets. Petersen and his team are using hot tub therapy, where people immerse in a hot water bath.

“Other research groups have used specialised electric blankets that are wrapped around the muscle or localised application of microwaves. The method used doesn't seem to matter provided that an increase in muscle temperature is achieved,” he said.

“Current thinking is that the muscle needs to be heated to 40-41 degree Celsius to be effective; however, more research is needed to confirm this. The resistance exercise is done using weights and weight machines, just like those found in a gym,” he said.

He said the researchers are yet unable to determine how much weight is needed to be lifted or how heavy the weights should be, “but a recent study indicates that even light weights may be effective for promoting muscle growth when combined with heat therapy”.

He added, exercise is the most beneficial prevention against and treatment for sarcopenia and lifelong exercise has numerous physical and mental health benefits.

The researchers are currently looking for research participants who can do single weight lifting workouts with a hot bath before and after. Blood samples and muscle biopsy samples will also be taken before and after the workout. Participants must be 65 to 80 years old and capable of doing moderate weight lifting exercises with their legs.

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