Fitness Magazine

Friday Q&A: Aging Muscles, Bones and Joints

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge

Friday Q&A: Aging Muscles, Bones and Joints

Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Q: You all have been writing a lot about muscles and bones late. I was wondering, how exactly does aging affect our musculo-skeletal system? And how can we influence the aging process with yoga and our lifestyle choices?

A: The process of aging affects our musculo-skeletal system in several particular ways. As I have written about previously, as muscles age, especially after about the age of 50, we start to lose muscle mass in a process called sarcopenia (see Strength and Aging). Sarcopenia is considered a normal part of the aging process, one that can lead to visibly smaller skeletal muscles—the ones that move our body and limbs around—which are then also going to be weaker. It is usually a slow, gradual process, but unchecked could lead to a point in a person’s life when the weakness could negatively impact his or her daily activities. According to an article Aging changes in the bones – muscles – joints from the National Institutes of Health: 

“Changes in the muscle tissue, combined with normal aging changes in the nervous system, cause muscles to have less tone and ability to contract. Muscles may become rigid with age and may lose tone, even with regular exercise.”

The body’s soft tissues tend to mostly made of water, and as we age, we also gradually experience a decrease in the amount of water in the muscles and the connective tissues (fascia and tensions) that surround the muscles and attach them to the bones, as well as the ligaments that connect bones to bones. As these changes occur, these structures become more brittle, less resilient and more likely to suffer injury, such as, strains and sprains. And because these structures don’t have a very good blood supply to start with, repair and recovery is typically slow, and slower as we get older. Other important soft tissue structures, such as the intervertebral discs between the vertebrae bones of the spine, and cushions, such as the meniscus in the knees and the labrum in the hip and shoulder joints, also suffer the same changes and the same potential for injury and degeneration. 

The skeleton, which is made up of over 200 bones, also undergoes changes as we age. Most commonly, the joint surfaces between the mobile joints can suffer wear and tear over a lifetime of use. The connective tissue barrier known as cartilage that coats the ends of each bone to make it slippery and cushioned can gradually thin out and leave the underlying bone exposed and sensitive to inflammation. This is commonly referred to as osteoarthritis (see Yoga for Osteoarthritis), an extremely common aging-related problem that can actually start at about any age, especially in those who use their bodies intensely for sports and work activities. 

Finally, the bones can begin to thin and lose density as we age, making them more vulnerable to fractures, which can then be slower to heal due to the abnormally thin bones. Thinning of the bones (osteoporosis) is extremely common in women over 65, with up to 50% developing it, and surprisingly common in men as well over 65, at 25% incidence. The bones of the thoracic spine (your mid spine) are at greatest risk for fracture, followed by the wrist bones and the femur bone (thigh bone) of the hip joint. Fractures from osteoporosis can lead to ongoing chronic pain, physical disability and, particularly with hip fractures, premature death. 

These factors and others, such the connection between the muscles and the neurologic system, can also lead to changes in posture and balance, which can also increase the chances of injury over time. An increase in general stiffness and pain can also arise with combinations of the above changes. 

On a brighter note, it has been noted in aging athletes, specifically long distance runners and cyclists, who maintain good cardio-vascular and respiratory function may see improved endurance in their sports compared to when they were younger! Here is a case where long term participation in physical activity pays off in improved function, not decline. This speaks directly to what we can do with regards to our lifestyle choices that can positively influence these changes of aging: stay active!  Regular exercise, modified to accommodate body changes such as arthritic joints or thinning bones, can help to slow, stall and even reverse many of these conditions. And for our purposes here, yoga can be an ideal standalone practice for some conditions, such as sarcopenia, and great in combination with other health practices for others, such as with osteoporosis or arthritis (which might also require medications and mineral supplements, for example). Eating a healthy diet and drinking adequate amounts of water to fuel and hydrate the body, and by extension these parts of the musculo-skeletal system, is another wise choice. 

For further information, check out these posts from our archives:

  • Yoga for Strength: An Overview
  • Yoga and Flexibility: An Overview
  • Healthy Bones for Men and Women Alike
  • What is Osteopenia? How Can Yoga Help?
  • Yoga for Osteoarthritis

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