Strength is one of the four aspects of physical fitness together with suppleness, skill and stamina. Strength is provided by the muscles and is measured by the ability to move weights, including, of course, the weight of the human body. The term ‘power’ is often used too and power means strength at speed. For example, does a person have the strength to get up from a chair is one question. The question related to power is to ask how quickly they can get up from the chair and how many times can they do it within a minute? That is power. The term ‘sarcopenia’ is sometimes used by doctors but this just means ‘weak muscles’ in Greek and is not a disease like Parkinson’s disease or stroke. In fact for all of us our muscles are getting weaker unless we take action and it is useful to consider how the four processes affect us as we live longer impact on strength and power.
There is some loss of muscular strength due to ageing but if you look at people who have kept their muscles strong their performance is remarkable even in their seventies, eighties and nineties. The other factors are more important.
Loss of fitness
Loss of fitness is probably the single most important cause of muscle weakness and loss of power, and by this we do not mean not going to a gym, although going to a gym is helpful at any age, but the loss of muscular strength that comes about as a result of modern lifestyle in a world dominated by the car, the computer and the desk job. Although no one would wish to go back to a world in which all roads had to be fug by shovels and all clothes washed by hand, we are now living in an environment in which muscular strength is lost from the early twenties on, sometimes complicated by disease.
There are some diseases that affect muscles directly but any disease that causes immobility or reduced movement of a joint and the muscles that move it will lead to accelerated loss of muscle strength. People who are lucky enough to get to a rehabilitation service after the onset of disease will get appropriate advice from a physiotherapist but most people with long-term health problems will not get this type of expert advice. The main charity promoting research in arthritis has, however, done great work in promoting the benefits of activity for people with arthritis.
Beliefs and attitudes
As always the wrong beliefs, namely that rest is best, and pessimistic attitudes – for example, “tTere is no point in giving my aunt a resistance band, she is 84 after all” – are the main factors.
The evidence is that people of any age can recover and increase strength and everyone needs a programme covering all the main muscle groups, particularly those of the quadriceps in the front of the thigh, and the core muscles of the spine and abdomen to maintain posture and prevent backache.