Musicians as athletes
I affirm this with the conviction of someone who knows these two universes well: musicians are high-performance athletes, but they do not treat themselves as such. Professional musical performance and high-performance sports require very similar levels of commitment, as well as physical and mental demands. The time, commitment and consistency required to achieve a high level of performance playing an instrument or performing a specific sport skill have much more in common than one might initially think. Some differences will lie in the fact that, in general, neuromuscular recruitment associated with playing an instrument has a greater focus on fine motor skills (i.e. short movements of greater precision and performed mainly with the limbs extremities) and less at the level of gross motor skills (i.e. larger movements involving larger muscle groups) that we normally associate with sports movements. However, it should be clarified that both large muscle groups play an important role, particularly at a postural level, in instrumental performance, and the smaller muscles associated with fine motor skills also play a fundamental role in most sports movements.
For example, if we establish a parallel between playing the violin and performing a given sport specific skill in tennis, we find that, although at different levels, a balance of fine and gross motor control is necessary for better performance in both activities. When we play the violin, we want to maintain a high and controlled posture so that holding the violin with the non-dominant arm and handling the bow with the dominant arm allows the fine work of the hands and fingers to occur as efficiently as possible. Now, if the musculature involved in the stabilization of the trunk and in the elevation of the arms is weak, fatigue sets in more quickly resulting in postural loss, in an execution carried out with greater muscle tension and consequently in a worse performance. In the case of the serve in tennis, due to the high demand for motor coordination and strength involving all the large muscle groups of the lower and upper body, there is also a need for high levels of fine motor skills coordination regarding wrist, hand and finger movements, in order to implement a given spin effect and the desired direction to the ball.
In fact, both musical and sports performance involve neuromuscular recruitment to produce movement and work that requires precision, speed, endurance and strength. In addition, and particularly at a professional level, playing an instrument and playing a sport are activities that require long hours of repetitive movements that, combined with poor physical conditioning, can lead to a variety of clinical conditions. It is unthinkable that a highly competitive athlete does not follow a training program targeting the development of his/her physical qualities which should be complementary to the practice of his/her sport. It is easy to recognize that a good physical fitness level will ensure greater resilience and longevity in sports. The same applies to musical performance. Musicians are high-performance athletes and should prepare themselves as such! Living and playing with pain is not inevitable, it is an option.
The prevalence of pain and injury in musicians
As the years go by and the hours playing their instrument accumulate, it is almost inevitable that professional musicians develop musculoskeletal and/or neuromuscular problems of varying severity at some point in their career. More so if they do nothing about their physical preparation. Review studies on the prevalence of injuries in professional musicians point out that 76% of musicians suffer or have suffered from physical problems that prevent them from performing at their usual level and 84% had injuries that interfered negatively with their musical practice1. Some musicians will develop tendinopathies and low back pain of varying intensity, which they will be able to manage with chronic intake of anti-inflammatory medications or simply by playing less frequently and/or just by enduring pain and discomfort. Others will develop more serious overuse injury syndromes that will become chronic and compromise not only quality of musical performance, but also quality of life, forcing them to periods of musical inactivity. Additionally, others will suffer from even more serious forms of injury that may result in abandoning their career as an instrumentalist musician.
In general, the most frequent injuries affecting musicians manifest themselves through pain and/or dysfunction, especially on the joints, tendons, ligaments and nerves of the upper limb, head, neck and spine. For example, in orchestral instrumentalists, injuries of musculoskeletal and/or neuromuscular origin are more common and affect about 64% musicians, of which 20% consist of peripheral nervous problems and about 8% of cases of focal dystonia2. It makes sense, considering that these are the most stressed areas of the body during instrumental practice. An exception would be the cases of focal dystonia, which, although it may be accompanied by pain and musculoskeletal injury, the root cause of the dysfunction observed at the peripheral level is actually central, that is, the dysfunctional neuronal circuits are at the upper levels of the central nervous system such as the cerebral cortex. Thus, the most frequent injuries in instrumentalist musicians can be summarized as follows3:
- Musculoskeletal injuries – epicondylitis, tendinopathies (tendinosis, tendinitis, tenosynovitis), bursitis, arthritis, arthrosis, osteoarthritis, contractures, injuries to the temporomandibular joint;
- Nerve trapping and inflammation – carpal tunnel syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome, radial tunnel syndrome, ulnar nerve compression syndrome, ulnar tunnel syndrome, cervical and lumbar radiculopathies;
- Focal dystonia;
- Hearing loss.
The onset of injuries in musicians is due to an array of factors that naturally interact. Several authors have identified the following factors facilitating and/or causing the development of injuries in musicians1:
- Physiological and biological factors such as gender and age. Women seem to be more likely to develop peripheral musculoskeletal and nerve injuries compared to men, and individuals who engage in high volume instrumental practice at an early age, at 4-5 years of age, are also more likely to develop injuries later in life4,5. In the case of focal dystonia, there is a clear higher prevalence in males (over 90%) and in women with menstrual disorders, which suggests that hormonal factors may be predisposing to the development of this disorder6.
- Type of instrument. The characteristics of the instrument (size, shape and weight) and the time of practice imply different levels of physical demand, in which fatigue onset and an execution based on too much physical effort can lead to the development of injuries7. For example, the position needed to play the clarinet implies that the entire weight of the instrument is supported on the right thumb, and at the same time it requires a large amount of short and fast movements of the fingers of both hands8. Another example particularly special to me is the double bass. A bulky instrument with an air column of considerable inertia, which requires not only considerable grip strength to press on the strings, but also considerable whole body physical effort (which, can of course, be optimized with efficient technique) to move this column of air and make the instrument vibrate and produce sound. Anyone who has tried playing the double bass for a few minutes realizes the physical demands that playing this instrument encompasses.
- Instrumental technique. A poor instrumental technique, with non-optimized positions, based on physical effort rather than on movement efficiency, associated with long hours of practice without rest, will naturally predispose the player to pain and injury, especially in the wrists, hands, neck and shoulders9 .
- Specific technical demands. The technical demands of a particular musical piece that often requires high-speed and high-intensity execution, with fatiguing repetition of movements or maintenance of extreme hand positions for a long period of time. All of this creates high levels of mechanical stress and may cause injury10,11.
- Body asymmetry. In the same way that an athlete of a one-side dominant sport will try to compensate for these asymmetries by working out both sides of the body, a musician is in a similar situation, because playing an instrument implies asymmetrical work in very unnatural positions for long periods of time, which will favor the occurrence of various muscular imbalances12.
- Poor physical fitness. Good levels of strength and general physical conditioning are essential to maintain a good position to play an instrument for long periods of time. Most of these positions are very unnatural. Being in good physical fitness will allow to resist the onset of fatigue, recover more quickly between rehearsals or practice sessions, and in fact, it will allow to tolerate more hours of practice avoiding technique and performance deterioration7. Muscle imbalances and weakness resulting from long hours of sitting in certain positions and high volume repetition of short movements must be prevented through exercise programs aiming to strengthen the body globally, and at the same time to compensate for muscle imbalances induced by instrumental practice13.
- Other lifestyle factors. We know that lifestyle factors such as smoking or smoke exposure, alcohol consumption, sleep deprivation, malnutrition, poor hydration and obesity have very damaging effects at a systemic level on our body. Regarding neuromuscular injuries, we know that all these forms of toxicity weaken the body’s connective tissue (cartilage, tendons, ligaments, membranes), muscles and nerve conduction, predisposing to the development of localized inflammatory processes as well as chronic injuries. For example, did you know that obesity is highly predisposing to development of carpal tunnel syndrome?14 Or that smoking is strongly associated with development of injuries and dysfunctions in the shoulder?15
Preventing and resolving injuries in musicians
Any elite athlete empirically knows something that has long been supported by science. That the most effective way to prevent (and also treat) overuse or overload injuries due to high volume sports practice is to ensure good levels of physical fitness combined with good recovery habits, adequate rest and nutrition. Regarding physical fitness, it is unthinkable for an elite athlete, not to follow a regular physical training program. An athlete knows that this will have negative consequences both on sports performance and on the susceptibility for developing injuries. The athlete knows that the weaker his/her musculoskeletal system is, the greater the vulnerability to injury. The question is, and if we consider that professional musicians are required to engage on activities requiring high physical and mental performance for long hours of daily practice, shouldn’t musicians treat themselves as high-performance athletes? I am certain that they should.
In fact, a 2019 systematic review investigating the topic of physical training for professional orchestra musicians1 indicates that following a structured physical training program of varying durations (from a few weeks to several months) has generally resulted in significant improvements in musical performance and in reducing (and even eliminating) chronic pain1.
To keep playing at the highest level for a long time, musicians would greatly benefit if they treated themselves as high-performance athletes and ensure that they maintain good physical shape combined with good habits of recovery, rest and nutrition. And to be clear, when I talk about staying in good physical shape, I don’t mean playing sports. In fact, playing sports as a mean to improve one’s physical fitness is not ideal and can even be harmful. More activity with asymmetric characteristics would be added on top of another, also asymmetric, which is playing a musical instrument. In general, all sports are constituted by specialized movements, and for that reason, also asymmetrical. So, except for purely recreational reasons (which can also be positive at a mental and stress release level), the practice of a sport as a strategy to improve physical fitness is not ideal and should not be the first choice particularly by musicians (I discuss this very topic in this article: Why musicians should not play sports).
General physical fitness is improved through the process of training our physical qualities. This should entail an assessment of the initial status in order to identify specific limitations and outline a specific intervention strategy. One should always start at the base and progress from there, just like the process of learning to play a musical instrument. Here, attention to detail is key. A well-designed training program implies the management of training variables specific to the profile and objectives of the athlete or, in this case, the musician. A correct selection of exercises is crucial, as well as close monitoring of their implementation regarding form of execution, training load and progression over time. As I mentioned, it is not very different from the process of learning to play a musical instrument!
For a musician, playing the instrument is the top priority. It can be obsessive, I know. But playing better in the long run does not necessarily mean playing more hours, but rather investing in taking care of the ‘’machine’’ that is our body. I reiterate once more that playing with pain or discomfort is an option and not an inevitability. Take care of your body and treat it well, because you will need it in the long run!
Train well to play well!
- Gallego, C., Ros, C., Ruíz, L., Martín, J. (2019). The physical training for musicians. Systematic review. Sportis Sci J, 5 (3), 532-561.
- Lederman, R. J. (2003). Neuromuscular and musculoskeletal problems in instrumental musicians. Muscle & Nerve, 27(5), 549–561.
- Betancor Almeida, I. (2011). Hábitos de actividad física en músicos de orquestas sinfónicas profesionales: un análisis empírico de ámbito internaciona Tesis Doctoral. Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.
- Fishbein, M., Middlestadt, S., Ottati, V., Straus, S., y Ellis, A. (1988). Medical problems among ICSOM musicians: Overview of a national survey. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 3(1), 1–8.
- Viaño, J. J. (2004). Estudio de la relación entre la apariciación de lesiones musculoesqueléticas en músicos instrumentistas y hábitos de actividad física y vida diaria. En III Congreso De La Asociación Española de Ciencias Del Deporte. Valencia: Universidad de A Coruña.
- Rosset-Llobet, J., Candia, V., Fàbregas, S., Ray, W., & Pascual-Leone, A. (2007). Secondary motor disturbances in 101 patients with musician’s dystonia. Journal of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry, 78(9), 949–953.
- Sardá, E. (2003). En forma: ejercicios para músicos. Barcelona: Paidos.
- Thrasher, M., y Chesky, K. (1998). Medical problems of clarinetists: Results from the U.N.T. musician health survey. The Clarinet, 25(4), 24–27.
- Wynn, C. B. (2004). Managing the physical demands of musical performance. En Williamon A. (Ed.), Musical excellence: Strategies and techniques to enhance performance (pp. 41–60). Londres: Oxford University Press.
- Bejjani, F. J., Kaye, G. M., y Benham, M. (1996). Musculoskeletal and neuromuscular conditions of instrumental musicians. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 77(4), 406–413.
- Mark, T., Gary, R., y Miles, T. (2003). What every pianist needs to know about the body: a manual for players of keyboard instruments: piano, organ, digital keyboard, harpsichord, clavichord. GIA Publications. Martín.
- Ackermann, B., Adams, R., y Marshall, E. (2002). Strength of endurance training for undergraduate music majors at a university? Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 17(1), 33– 41.
- Frabretti, C., y Gomide, M. F. (2010). A saúde dos músicos: dor na prática profissional de músicos de orquestra no ABCD paulista. Revista Brasileira de Saúde Ocupacional, 35(121), 33– 40.
- Shiri R, Pourmemari MH, Falah-Hassani K, Viikari-Juntura E. The effect of excess body mass on the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome: a meta-analysis of 58 studies. Obes Rev. 2015;16(12):1094-1104.
- Bishop, Julie Y. et al. (2015). Smoking Predisposes to Rotator Cuff Pathology and Shoulder Dysfunction: A Systematic Review. Arthroscopy, Volume 31, Issue 8, 1598 – 1605.
“People don’t decide their future, people decide their habits and their habits decide their future.”
– F.M. Alexander
Nine years ago (2010)1, the European Working Group on Sarcopenia in Older People (EWGSOP) published a definition of sarcopenia that has been widely used worldwide and this definition has fostered advances in the identification and care of people at risk or with sarcopenia. It was defined as a syndrome characterized by progressive and widespread loss of muscle mass and strength at risk of adverse outcomes such as physical disability, poor quality of life and death. Because the relationship between muscle mass and strength is not linear (the ability to generate strength is not only dependent of muscle mass), the criteria for its diagnosis included low muscle mass and low muscle function (i.e. strength or physical performance).
After learning that in 2016 sarcopenia was classified as a disease by the World Health Organization, as noted in the first part of this article, the EWGSOP22 updated its operational definition and various diagnostic strategies, considering now that muscle strength (measured by grip strength or the chair stand test) is the main parameter for measuring muscle function, even more important than the amount of muscle mass. Therefore, it is in this context that we justify the title of this article and reinforce the importance of sharing this message with all health professionals.
The implications of this condition on human health are several and widely known: increased risk of falls and fractures3,4; impairment of activities of daily living5; association with heart disease6; respiratory disease7 and cognitive dysfunction8; lower quality of life9; loss of independence10,11,12 and death13. In financial terms, public health costs have also been calculated in several papers. In a study by Janssen et. al.14, in 2004, the costs of sarcopenia in the United States were estimated at $ 18.5 billion annually, representing about 1.5% of total health costs. In a study conducted here in Portugal at the Hospital de Santo António in Porto and published in 201615, it was found that hospitalization costs associated with sarcopenia were higher by 58.5% for patients under 65 years and by 34% for patients aged 65 and over. More recently (2018), the Hertfordshire Cohort Study in the United Kingdom16 found that the costs associated with lack of muscle strength were estimated at £ 2.5 billion annually.
In the present scenario, where the phenotype of unhealthy aging is proliferating in the eyes of all industrialized nations, in which diseases such as hypertension, cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and type II diabetes are destroying people’s lives, it is essential to adopt measures aimed at improving function of each individual rather than diagnosing illnesses and administering medicines which, in addition, do not help solving this problem, and may further aggravate their condition. We know that the main health problems are related to poor diet, physical inactivity, lack of sleep, excess alcohol, exposure to tobacco and polluted environments but also lack of movement quality, vigor and muscular strength.
The benefits of strength training in health are well supported in the scientific literature and the most important ones are: decrease in blood pressure; decreased risk of osteoporosis and sarcopenia; improvement of lipid profile; increased cardiorespiratory capacity; prevention and management of chronic pain; increased insulin sensitivity; improvement of wellbeing and self-confidence. Moreover, several studies17,18,19 have shown a strong and consistent correlation between increased strength and muscle mass with decreased mortality, reinforcing the fact that the decline in strength associated with the current levels of sedentarism and aging need to be addressed. Therefore, a well-designed strength training program that meets the individual’s competency and follows the principles of adaptation to training will improve all of the above health indicators and all the necessary physical qualities (strength, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, mobility, endurance) to carry out the activities of our daily life. These are the parameters of physical function that are currently being proposed as biomarkers of aging in humans20.
Consequently, program design will be the determining factor in this equation. And while it is true that this process requires imperative knowledge of sports sciences, it must be borne in mind that it also requires field work and art in coaching. Instead of being so preoccupied with following the guidelines and looking for statistically significant results, we should be concerned that our approach is relevant to one’s life. Because we work with people. People who have time constraints to train. People with different family and professional responsibilities. People who have different lives from each other. People who have a host of metabolic and / or orthopedic problems that no randomized controlled trial can ever reproduce! Yes, this is a complex process.
Finally, we know that one of the mechanisms responsible for muscle atrophy, sarcopenia and aging is apoptosis, a form of programmed cell death and a fundamental process in aging. But when we train, eat and rest properly, we are sending a signal to our body to create an anabolic environment, an environment that enhances the release of growth factors and suppresses apoptosis. That is, strength training is a macroscopic growth factor that suppresses programmed cell death (i.e. apoptosis), but unlike drugs, where an increasing in dose means more disease and dependence, an increase in load (even if reduced) means more health, more strength and more vigor. This way, the daily decisions will always be up to each one: treat the body like a Ferrari or treat the body like a rental car.
- Cruz-Jentoft AJ, Baeyens JP, Bauer JM et al. Sarcopenia: European consensus on definition and diagnosis: report of the European working group on sarcopenia in older people. Age Ageing 2010; 39: 412–23.
- Cruz-Jentoft AJ, Bahat G, Bauer J, Boirie Y, Bruyère O, Cederholm T, Cooper C, Landi F, Rolland Y, Sayer AA, Schneider SM, Sieber CC, Topinkova E, Vandewoude M, Visser M, Zamboni M; Writing Group for the European Working Group on Sarcopenia in Older People 2 (EWGSOP2), and the Extended Group for EWGSOP2. Sarcopenia: revised European consensus on definition and diagnosis. Age Ageing. 2019 Jan 1;48(1):16-31.
- Bischoff-Ferrari HA, Orav JE, Kanis JA et al. Comparative performance of current definitions of sarcopenia against the prospective incidence of falls among community-dwelling seniors age 65 and older. Osteoporos Int 2015; 26:2793–802.
- Schaap LA, van Schoor NM, Lips P et al. Associations of sarcopenia definitions, and their components, with the incidence of recurrent falling and fractures: the longitudinal aging study Amsterdam. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2018; 73: 1199–204.
- Malmstrom TK, Miller DK, Simonsick EM et al. SARC-F: a symptom score to predict persons with sarcopenia at risk for poor functional outcomes. J Cachexia Sarcopenia Muscle 2016; 7: 28–36.
- Bahat G, Ilhan B. Sarcopenia and the cardiometabolic syndrome: a narrative review. Eur Geriatr Med 2016; 6: 220–23.
- Bone AE, Hepgul N, Kon S et al. Sarcopenia and frailty in chronic respiratory disease. Chron Respir Dis 2017; 14: 85–99.
- Chang KV, Hsu TH, Wu WT et al. Association between sarcopenia and cognitive impairment: a systematic review and metaanalysis. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2016; 17: 1164.e7–64.e15.
- Beaudart C, Biver E, Reginster JY et al. Validation of the SarQoL(R), a specific health-related quality of life questionnaire for Sarcopenia. J Cachexia Sarcopenia Muscle 2017; 8: 238–44.
- Dos Santos L, Cyrino ES, Antunes M et al. Sarcopenia and physical independence in older adults: the independent and synergic role of muscle mass and muscle function. J Cachexia Sarcopenia Muscle 2017; 8: 245–50.
- Akune T, Muraki S, Oka H et al. Incidence of certified need of care in the long-term care insurance system and its risk factors in the elderly of Japanese population-based cohorts: the ROAD study. Geriatr Gerontol Int 2014; 14: 695–701.
- Steffl M, Bohannon RW, Sontakova L et al. Relationship between sarcopenia and physical activity in older people: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Clin Interv Aging 2017; 12: 835–45.
- De Buyser SL, Petrovic M, Taes YE et al. Validation of the FNIH sarcopenia criteria and SOF frailty index as predictors of long-term mortality in ambulatory older men. Age Ageing 2016; 45: 602–8.
- Janssen I, Shepard DS, Katzmarzyk PT, Roubenoff R. The healthcare costs of sarcopenia in the United States. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2004 Jan;52(1):80-5.
- Sousa AS, Guerra RS, Fonseca I, Pichel F, Ferreira S, Amaral TF. Financial impact of sarcopenia on hospitalization costs. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2016 Sep;70(9):1046-51. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2016.73. Epub 2016 May 11.
- Pinedo Villanueva, R. A., Westbury, L. D., Syddall, H. E., Sanchez, M., Dennison, E. M., Robinson, S. M., & Cooper, C. (2018). Health care costs associated with muscle weakness: a UK population-based estimate. Calcified Tissue International.
- Ruiz JR, Sui X, Lobelo F, et al. Association between muscular strength and mortality in men: prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2008;337(7661):a439. Published. doi:10.1136/bmj.a439.
- Srikanthan P, Karlamangla AS. Muscle mass index as a predictor of longevity in older adults. Am J Med. 2014;127(6):547-53.
- Dos Santos L, Cyrino ES, Antunes M, Santos DA, Sardinha LB. Changes in phase angle and body composition induced by resistance training in older women. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2016 Dec;70(12):1408-1413. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2016.124. Epub 2016 Jul 13. PubMed PMID: 27406159.
- Cadore EL, Izquierdo M. Muscle Power Training: A Hallmark for Muscle Function Retaining in Frail Clinical Setting. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2018 Mar;19(3):190-192.
There is currently sufficient scientific evidence to assert that strength training is an effective method for preventing, treating and potentially reversing various chronic diseases. Indeed, adherence to a properly designed strength training program can significantly increase the physical and mental health of the population.
The importance is such that several world-renowned organizations (World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Heart Association, American Association for Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation, American College of Sports Medicine) recommend this form of training for maintain health.
However, despite this evidence, most of exercise recommendations are still for aerobic training, and few physicians (and health professionals in general) recommend strength training. This article aims to alert for the relevance and valuable impact of strength training on health.
About 100% of our biological existence has been dominated by outdoor activity. Hunting and searching for food has been a condition of human life for millions of years1. That is, if in the past it took effort (i.e. physical activity) to find food, nowadays food comes to us without having to make any effort. Therefore, we have moved from a very active lifestyle to a highly sedentary lifestyle. With serious consequences for public health. If in the past all people had to engage in some sort of physical exertion to carry out their daily tasks, today most of them do not have those needs. The environment has changed and so have people. They are weaker, sicker, have more chronic pain and are increasingly dependent on medicines. But the message still going on in our society (and passed on in medical appointments) is “make no physical efforts and follow your normal life”. And I believe this is the worst advice people can get! Normal life? But what kind of advice is this? How can normal be good? You must be completely alienated from reality in order to make such recommendations.
Today we have more opportunities than ever to build a healthy and strong phenotype. The phenotype is the expression of our organism, and it depends largely on the choices we make every day. Two organisms can have the same genotype, the same DNA, but different phenotypes – based on their experiences and the environment. Admittedly, there are things we cannot control such as our genetic heritage, the place of the world where we were born / lived, overall luck and the general environment to some extent. But there are many things that we can control that depend solely on our priorities in life and our daily choices (examples: exercise habits, eating, sleeping, stress management, smoking, alcohol, exposure to polluted environments). And I believe that exercise in general (and strength training in particular) is the most important factor of all. It is the most potent, it’s quantifiable and acts quickly on all systems and organs of the human body.
The reality is this: the population is aging and with more chronic / noncommunicable diseases. The main noncommunicable diseases are cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes. These four disease groups alone account for over 80% of the 41 million deaths in the world2! According to the first report on healthy aging by the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of people over 60 is expected to double by 20503, and it is in this context that we need to urgently intervene to promote motor autonomy and improve people’s functional capacity. Traditional recommendations for walking, swimming, Pilates, and “doing low effort activities” or “no physical effort” probably need to be reconsidered and properly contextualized.
It is in this context that strength training and athletic training play a key role. All people (athletes and non-athletes) need to train their physical qualities to live with quality and independently. After age 30, adults lose 3-8% of their muscle mass per decade. Over time, the loss of lean mass contributes to a decrease in muscle strength and power, which are important predictors of balance, falls and mortality4. In the case of the elderly, it is important to note that falls are the main cause of accidental death after age 65 and hip fractures are those that most affect their independence5.
When I speak of strength I mean the basis for interacting with the environment around us, the foundation for the development of other physical qualities (mobility, power, speed, agility, muscle endurance), the ability to produce strength against external resistance (it can be the floor or any other object) through muscle contractions. This is probably the most trainable capacity we have and the one that could have the greatest impact on improving our function, independence and functional longevity. Tasks such as brisk walking, sitting and rising from a chair, climbing stairs, maintaining balance, carrying luggage, or playing with children / grandchildren are examples of activities in our daily lives that require a minimal component of various manifestations of strength (maximum strength, power and strength endurance). Therefore, both strength and muscle (quality rather than quantity) are physical function related parameters that need to be taken care of in the quest for achieving a healthy aging phenotype.
These issues are even more important when we note that as of 1st of October 2016, in the tenth revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10), sarcopenia has been classified as a disease by WHO and has its own code (M62.84). This should lead to increased availability of diagnostic tools and increased enthusiasm for the pharmaceutical industry to develop drugs to combat sarcopenia6. But in my opinion, this also represents a great opportunity for exercise professionals to be able to help fighting this disease, as strength training (properly oriented of course) will be the most potent stimulus in its prevention and treatment.
- Booth FW, Roberts CK, Laye MJ. Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases. Comprehensive Physiology. 2012;2(2):1143-1211. doi:10.1002/cphy.c110025.
- GBD 2015 Risk Factors Collaborators. Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 79 behavioural, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks, 1990–2015: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015. Lancet, 2016; 388(10053):1659-1724.
- Beard JR, Officer A, de Carvalho IA, et al. The world report on ageing and health: A policy framework for healthy ageing. Lancet 2016;387:2145e2154.
- English KL, Paddon-Jones D. Protecting muscle mass and function in older adults during bed rest. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. 2010;13(1):34-39. doi:10.1097/MCO.0b013e328333aa66.
- National Center for Injury Prevention and Control of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Falls: A Guide to Implementing Effective Community-Based Fall Prevention Programs 2nd edition. Atlanta: 2015.
- Anker SD, Morley JE, von Haehling S. Welcome to the ICD-10 code for sarcopenia. J Cachexia Sarcopenia Muscle. 2016 Dec;7(5):512-514. Epub 2016 Oct 17. PubMed PMID: 27891296; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5114626.
If you still exercise to “burn calories,” you have not yet realized the purpose of a physical training program and the importance that movement has in our lives. The least important thing about exercise is the number of calories you burn! And that’s what I’ll try to explain in this article.
The power of exercise goes far beyond calorie burning, caloric expenditure is just a (nice) side effect of the type of exercise we do. Exercise consists of potentiating the release of powerful molecules and hormones that “talk” to our body’s organs (it’s not just food that has this kind of influence), and that determines what’s going to happen. And usually, the higher the intensity, the more beneficial the hormonal response.
Therefore, a well-designed physical training program has more to do with increasing energy levels, movement precision, vigor, muscular strength, mobility, agility, speed, work capacity and with an improved hormonal profile.
The Calorie Fever
I still see a lot of people worried about the calories in their food, the calories they burn when they exercise, the calories they consume each day, and I ask: How did we get here? What kind of message is being propagated that made people so obsessed with calories? Is calorie counting that important? Let’s see.
In order to discover the amount of energy in food, scientists burn food samples in a bomb calorimeter. And, to my knowledge, a bomb calorimeter does not share the same physiology and genetic makeup as a human being. As far as I know, a bomb calorimeter does not depend on the functioning of the various systems in the human body which are the real players in the way energy is absorbed and used (examples: digestive, endocrine and nervous system). This way of thinking is most likely unsustainable and ineffective long-term. This way of thinking is too reductive and does not solve the main problem – people’s lack of education regarding the importance of what we eat throughout our lives. Is it just me who finds it strange that most people are more concerned about their cell phones, cars and computers than with the origin and composition of the food they eat?
In fact, just look around and you’ll acknowledge that this is not the path to follow!
It is true that if we have the goal of losing fat mass, we must create an energy deficit, that is, the balance between the amount of calories (energy) entering our body and the amount of energy (calories) burned, must be negative. That’s the number one rule in rigid weight loss programs and that’s why we see Biggest Loser contestants training several times a day.
(Note: I should remind you that the Biggest Loser is a contest in which the goal is to lose weight in the shortest time possible, it’s not a contest to see who gets out of there healthier – if this was the goal probably there was no audience).
However, there is a lot more to be said. There are good calories and bad calories. The foods we eat, besides having a certain number of calories (which can be very difficult to determine with accuracy and can be highly variable), also have different properties with respect to their composition of macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates) and micronutrients (minerals, vitamins, phytochemicals). These bioactive properties and compounds are what makes the difference and what should be studied preferentially. In my way of looking at things, it is more logical to first check the functionality of food (i.e. how its nutrients work) and then look at its caloric density, which can also be more or less functional depending on the objectives, morphology and specific conditions of each individual.
(Note: If you still think low fat diets are the most suitable for weight loss check the following study published in 2003 in the New England Journal of Medicine here, where it was shown that people on a high-fat diet lost more weight as those on a low-fat diet, the diet generally recommended by leading health organizations. But, of course, adherence to the diet will be the most important factor).
Back to calories…
Because the absorption of these nutrients will depend on the functioning of our digestive system – which in turn is governed by the endocrine system (think of hormones) and the nervous system (think of neurotransmitters) – and the health of the organs involved in the digestion process (mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, small intestine, large intestine, liver, gallbladder), it becomes easy to understand that the web of relationships in the human body is much more complex than simple calorie counting. Albert Einstein has a quote that fits perfectly here: “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
The Power of Exercise
Anyone that is minimally informed about exercise already knows that long distance aerobic training is not the best choice for improving body composition and may even have opposite effects (catabolic effects) due to the pronounced increase in cortisol levels.
This has been known for a long time but it’s always important to remember. This study published by Tremblay, Simoneau and Bouchard in 1994, showed that the group that did 15 weeks of interval training burned NINE TIMES more fat than the group that did aerobic training. And this was in half of the time period!
What you need to “burn calories” is to increase the intensity of your workouts for certain periods of time, it’s this type of stimulus that will increase your metabolism and accelerate fat loss. In this study, a 30-minute training session of metabolic resistance training caused a 38-hour increase in metabolism – the famous afterburn effect or EPOC (post-exercise oxygen consumption). Let’s put this into perspective. Let’s say you trained this way on Friday morning. With this training method your body will still be in a “fat burning” mode on Saturday night, when you’re having dinner with your friends or with your boyfriend / girlfriend.
And why do I insist on combining a good diet with good training? Because I’m aware of the evidence on this topic. This study from 1999 showed that those who did aerobic training and strength training on a low calorie diet burned 44% more fat than those who merely followed dietary guidelines. As I’ve been saying, diet is the most important component for those people who want to lose fat, however, once that aspect is assured, only strength training and interval training can actually bring your results to a higher level. In my opinion, the fact that this study was based on a low-calorie diet combined with aerobic training is limiting, but we have to bear in mind that these are usually the guidelines of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). The guidelines are intended to facilitate nutritional guidance offered by practitioners, but unfortunately that is not what I have observed when I discuss these issues with some colleagues.
I think you have already realized that the type of training you do can be a great ally to put your body in an energy deficit and consequently in fat burning status. Now I will try to explain why this is the least important of all. Stay with me!
Like nutrition, physical exercise is key to improve health, performance and body composition. You’re probably tired of hearing this. But it’s not any kind of physical exercise that works. Doing hundreds of crunches to lose belly fat, using all the gym machinery, running 10 miles a day, doing Pilates twice a week and doing 100 power cleans in the shortest time possible is not enough. You can call it physical exercise if you want, but it’s not just this kind of physical exercise our body needs. A more comprehensive approach is needed.
We need Good Movement (we shouldn’t start running in the first place)
The concept of “move more for your health” is insufficient for our real needs and to improve quality of life. We need good movement, we need to acquire movement competency in the first place. I am talking about the ability to perform fundamental movements with good form. Fundamental movement patterns such as squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, throwing, carrying, walking, running and jumping.
From my point of view, running should be the last step in this process and yet what we most frequently see is people running all crooked and with an obvious deficit in muscle strength. But the problem is not theirs, they are trying to do something for their health (and probably that’s all they know), the problem is that most of them are not aware that running is a skill, which requires preparation, practice and training. Cristiano Ronaldo did not become the best player in the World over night, it took many hours of training (in the field and in the gym) to reach this level. Although it’s relatively easy and affordable for anyone to put on their shoes and just go out for a run, running also requires preparation, practice and training (technical and physical).
It is necessary to have stability, mobility, strength (every step we take on the ground is subject to the action of gravity and the speed we run, generating reaction forces of 2 to 5 times our body weight), symmetry, quality of movement and good musculoskeletal health. Running to get healthy or fit is one of the greatest physical distresses on our body if we don’t have a solid foundation. First, you need to be in good shape to run. If you don’t hone good movement skills, you are more likely to get injured. According to the available literature, the incidence rate of injury in runners may exceed 90%, this is more than any other sport. Plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, patellar tendonitis and patellofemoral pain are just a few examples. Check this systematic review if you’re interested in learning more.
Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-running and I admire the effort and suffering capacity of all runners. I think we should all be able to run (by the way, that’s how we evolved as a species), the problem is that most people who run are not properly prepared to run and there are fundamental learning steps that should not be overlooked in order to prevent structural imbalances in the musculoskeletal system and injuries. Cleary the simplistic idea of “move more” is not enough.
A new way to look at training
Different types of training can affect the way our genes work and how they interact with our cells. With good training it’s possible to decrease chronic inflammation, improve insulin sensitivity, strengthen the cardiovascular system, improve lipid profile, slow down normal aging, burn fat (as we’ve seen in more detail above), increase confidence and self-esteem, increase energy levels, increase mental strength, improve a number of physical skills that we need for our daily life activities or sports practice (such as strength, stability, mobility, balance, speed, agility) and our different energy systems (ATP-CP, glycolytic, and oxidative). As we age, these skills naturally decline, but the fact is that with a more comprehensive training program it is possible to reverse and / or at least mitigate this decline.
Most people think that genes are the brain of the cell, they believe that if genes don’t tell you what to do, the cell dies. But if you remove the genes from the cell, the cell is still alive, eliminating waste products and behaving just like another cell. So, instead of genes being the brain of the cell, think of genes as your instruction / repair manual. When a worn part of the cell needs to be repaired or when new substances need to be produced, genes will give instructions for doing so.
Every cell in our body is surrounded by a fatty membrane, which is filled with thousands of receptors. These receptors receive information from different parts of the body and pass this information into the cell to form / encode new proteins, burn more or less fat, etc. (Note: this is why it’s important to eat good fats and avoid the hydrogenated fats present in most processed foods so that the cell membrane is more permeable to nutrient delivery.) It’s this membrane with receptors the cell command center so if we remove these membrane receptors, the cells die. This means that cell function is highly influenced by external factors, namely through hormones and other molecules that bind to these receptors.
These messenger molecules are not randomly created by our body, they are created according to our lifestyle, diet, thoughts, behaviors, temperature, light, sound and… our type of training. It’s possible to be born with some defective genes – for example BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, which increase the risk for breast cancer – but it’s these messenger molecules / hormones that will determine the degree of activation of these genes. Therefore, controlling these hormones means controlling the body.
(Note: Don’t you find it strange that almost 90% of health care costs is related to treat health conditions, while 80% of health problems / diseases arise as a consequence of our lifestyle and the environment we’re exposed to? Check this TED talk from Dan Buettner to realize why we are walking in the wrong direction).
High-intensity exercise is the one that induces a more favorable hormonal environment, with an increase in hormones such as testosterone, growth hormone and IGF-1, interleukins with an important role in inflammation (IL-6), muscle tissue maintenance (IL-15) and growing of new blood vessels (IL-8), lactic acid (which has the ability to keep us young by stimulating the release of testosterone and growth hormone) and nitric oxide, a vasodilator which plays a key role in regulating blood pressure, muscle strength and erectile dysfunction. Unfortunately, long running does not produce the same effects. Compound movements, which require a combination of strength and stamina, in short periods of time, are those that will put your muscles to “talk” more with your body. Burning calories is only a minor side effect when compared to the amount of hormones and other signaling molecules that influence how our body works.
To be clear, we are talking about intensity coupled with movement quality. Intensity coupled with bad movement will have the opposite effect: INJURY.
It’s urgent to give rise to a new mentality on training the movement skills that we will need throughout our lives. And this is a serious limitation of most group classes in conventional gyms. The instructors are obliged to follow a certain beat and choreography. Individualized feedback is almost non-existent. People don’t have time to understand or to learn the movements. And no one learns anything if they don’t know what it’s for, no one learns anything if they don’t understand how it’s supposed to feel and its practical implications. In addition, most machines in gyms annihilate the sensory and body perception that we, humans, need. We live in a three-dimensional world, in a world of constant adaptation and spatial exploration, so it makes no sense that machines and choreographies of group classes dictate the rules of our movement.
And why is it important to learn efficient movements? First, an efficient movement happens when a body is able to produce force through a coordinated action between the various body segments without energy leaks and demonstrating a natural ability to exploit maximum range of motion. Second, it’s movement that will allow you to play more time with your children, change the furniture at home, improve your day-to-day performance and your performance in your recreational activities.
Look at this type of training as the foundation, the support you need to get stronger, faster, smarter, more agile, more competent in a series of physical attributes that will allow you to perform better in the activities you enjoy doing. Would you like to start playing tennis? golf? volleyball? Would you like to start surfing? paddle board? weightlifting? powerlifting? dance? climbing? triathlon? Would you like to be faster when you play football with your friends during on weekends? Obviously, each modality has its specific abilities, but they all share the same foundation: human being’s adaptability capacity. To improve these specific skills safely, you first need to improve your fundamental movement patterns. And to sustainably keep improving these fundamental movement patterns, you need to train better and respect the developmental stages of each one.
To sum up, the great advantage of better training (and I remind you what we learned about the power of exercise, good movement and a new way of looking at training) is to improve your quality of life, maximize your performance and, above all, giving you the freedom and autonomy to choose the activity / sport that you always wanted to try but never had the courage or opportunity to start off.
Think about these things next time you go to the gym to walk on the treadmill with your headphones on and watch some TV series for 40 minutes while looking at the calories burned on the monitor and at the workouts or exercises other people are doing.
See you soon!
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