Bounce and hop to stay younger: the other “forgotten muscle”
You don’t have to be a specialist to recognize old person’s gait. What is the most distinct feature that distinguishes the walk of an elderly person, even at a distance? How is it different from a young person’s gait? When you look at children running around, you can almost see the excess of energy pouring out of every cell in their body in form of bouncing, hopping, skipping and jumping. The older you get, the more you give in to gravity, until the gait becomes flat and shuffling.
As a geriatrician I spend a fair amount of time trying to pinpoint and understand the changes in our bodies, as they get older. Are they inherent to aging or just a result of chronic disease? Are they there to stay or might they be reversible? You get the picture.
The idea of bounce being an index of youthful energy of sorts came to me, as thing often do, out of my own experience. At 30, I underwent a catastrophic illness, which kept me in ICU flat on my back for 2 weeks. When I was finally able to get up, to my surprise I found that I had to literally re-learn how to walk. I started initially with a walker. During the next few months, while generally I felt much better, I continued to shuffle around like an old lady. I lost my bounce!
“People lose the spring in their legs when they get older; I’ve seen old people who literally cannot jump on a curb” says Dr. Terry Todd, chiropractor and Olympic weightlifter.
Traditionally, we believed that it was plantar fascia, a thick, fibrous membrane that stretches from your heel to the ball of your foot that worked as a main support but recent research points to the muscles of the foot and ankle playing even bigger role. Why is this important? There is nothing you can do to strengthen the fascia, but plenty that will improve the muscle strength. Lichtwark and his team measured activation of foot muscles, while applying increasing weight to the knees. The more weigh was applied, the more muscles activated.
“We believe these muscles help aid in versatility of the foot and its ability to act like a spring and cope with large forces “ said Lichtwark.
Hopping helps muscle strength and prevents osteoporosis. A study at University of Cambridge, Great Britain followed 30 healthy men aged 65-80 years old. They were assigned to do five sets of hops with 15-second rest in between on one leg only. They had bone density at baseline and at 12 months follow up. There has been a significant increase in bone density in both legs, but predictably, the “exercise” leg saw more benefit.
The lost of strength as we age affects first fast-twitch rather than slow-twitch muscles, affecting the fast, explosive movements, like ability to jump. The good news is, there is something we can do about it.
“Most of the decline seen in strength and muscular endurance, at least until 70, is due to disuse of neuromuscular system, then to aging” says Dr. Spirduso, author of “Physical Dimension of Aging”.
How hopping and jumping can make you feel younger: the best way to restore the fast-twitch muscles is plyometric training (explosive exercises, where your muscle exert maximum force in as short time as possible, such as jumping). These exercises are gaining some popularity recently, but feet and ankles often are overlooked in workouts – another “forgotten muscle”. It is unfortunate, because they can benefit you in so many ways. For instance, research found that plyometric exercises done immediately before the event improved performance in runners and weight lifters. But this is not all that they can do for you.
Plyometrics also help increase bone density, prevent injuries and improve power, strength and agility. Interestingly, higher impact exercises like running sprints, jumping and walking the steps appear to improve memory. These kinds of exercises correlate the strongest with the release of BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor), which in turn increases production of nerve cells in hippocampus, our memory storage area. Additionally, such exercise can increase the difference between a psychological prediction of age and chronological age. So essentially, it makes you younger.
How to get your bounce back:
If you haven’t done any jumping in a long time, make sure to “start low, go slow” to prevent the injuries. Also, if you have any medical conditions, particularly uncontrolled hypertension, coronary artery disease or osteoporosis, check with your doctor before embarking on any exercise program. Always start with a warm-up. Don’t exercise if you are injured or in pain.
Calf rises might be the best place to start. They gently engage the foot-ankle muscle apparatus, preparing you for higher impact exercises. To do the most basic and safest one, stand straight behind a chair with high back or next to a kitchen counter for balance and support, with your feet slightly apart. Lift your heels until you stand on your tippy toes. Maintain it for a count of three, and then slowly lower your heels. As you feel more confident, you could try calf raises, standing on the edge of a stair step (holding on to the railing).
Step-ups: another gentle way to ease your way back into hopping and jumping. You don’t need any fancy machines or even a step stool. Simply start with using the first step of your stairs at home (or a staircase if you live in the apartment). Plant your foot entirely on the step. Keep your back straight and abdominal muscles engaged. Then step backward into the starting position and alternate your feet.
Jumping jacks: if you are able to do the above exercises with ease, you are ready to take it to the next step – jumping jacks. If you are worried about your balance, start with just the footwork, holding on to back of a chair or a kitchen counter for support. At the beginning, shoot for narrower stance, no more than shoulder width. Also, you don’t have to bring your arms up all the way (it adds to cardiovascular load), only to a shoulder height. It is an old-school, time-tested way to warm up and add spring to your step. If you have any pain in your knees, don’t do it.
Rope jumping: a phenomenal overall exercise that, unless you are into boxing, you probably haven’t done since elementary school. Start from a single bounce, build up to two, then three at a time. You don’t have to jump high, only enough to clear the rope (1/4-1/2 an inch). Jump on the balls of your feet; keep the heels of the ground to prevent the knees from absorbing the impact. Oh, and you don’t actually need the rope – you can just hop in place for the same benefit.
A spring in your step can make you feel younger, in addition to the more obvious gains in strength, balance and bone density. From research we have learned that outward appearances of our inner state are, in fact, two-way streets. A famous psychological experiment on facial feedback theory, Strack proved that facial expressions could change your feelings. In other words, a simple action of plastering a smile on your face will help you feel happier. Several recent trials have shown a significant improvement in depression in patients whose “frown lines” were treated with Botox. Similarly, not only does our self-perception affect our posture, but, in turn, posture affects our self-evaluation.
But don’t take just my word for it.
Written by: Anna Lamnari, MD
- Anna Salleh, Muscles help give you a spring in your step. ABC Science 1/29/2014 http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2014/01/29/3933462.htm
- Luke A. Kelly, Andrew G. Cresswell, Sebastien Racinais, Rodney Whiteley, Glen Lichtwark. Foot muscles have the capacity to control deformation of the longitudinal arch. J R Soc Interface. 2014 Apr 6; 11(93): 20131188
- Clarence Bass, Keep that spring; explosive strength movements prevent loss of the proverbial step. Ripped. 1997, http://cbass.com/spring.htm
- Spirduso W. Physical Dimension of Aging, Human Kinetics 1995, Magid Dermatol Surg 2006; 32:645-649
- Wollmer et al. Facing depression with botulinum toxin: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of psychiatric Research; 46:574-581
- Brinol P, Petty R. Body posture effects on self-evaluation: a self-validation approach. European Journal of Social Psychology vol 39, issue 6, October 2009, 1053-1064
- Pijnappels M et al. Identification of elderly fallers by muscle strength measures. European Journal of Applied Physiology March 2008, Volume 102, Issue 5, pp 585–592