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Myth: Muscle tissue decreases as you get older

Myth: Muscle tissue decreases as you get older

Photographer:Fotograaf: Appie Derks

Myth busters

People who enter professor Luc van Loon's room will see a large square, height-adjustable table, surrounded by four desk bicycles. The professor's desk is adjustable too, (“do you have a moment,” he grins as he tells the name of his chair) ‘Physiology of Exercise and in particular the role of nutrition’. We take the slogan ‘sitting is the new smoking’ serious here.

“When I give a lecture, I often ask people to bare their lower arms. Look carefully, I say to them, because in fifty to a hundred days you will have a new arm, your muscles will have renewed themselves. There is a continuous process of breaking down and reconstructing of muscles occurring with the speed of 1 to 2 per cent a day. It is because of this that muscles are capable of adapting.” He shows a picture of the fully trained former cyclist Lance Armstrong with a shiny and tanned bodybuilder beside him. “The muscles of an endurance athlete like Armstrong look different from those of the bodybuilder and that has everything to do with their way of training.”

If we exercise less - whether it is because of a nasty flu, an operation, an injury or just because the sofa is so comfortable - we lose muscles. Young and old. It is a fable that as years pass, muscle tissue decreases irreversibly, says Van Loon. “We don't lose muscle tissue from the age of thirty, that's bullshit. If you are healthy and can move well, you can build up muscles as long as you live, even at the age of ninety. The thing is that muscles don't know if you are young or old. The muscle tissue that you have, must be maintained.” Caring children, who move their father's bed downstairs because he is recovering from a hip operation, do him no favours. “He no longer needs to use the stairs and loses out on account of that.”

Van Loon refers to research carried out by his group. “We asked healthy male students to stay in bed for a week. They were allowed to eat, drink, talk, whatever, but had to stay in bed. After a week they had lost an average of 1.3 kilo of muscle tissue. That is how quickly it goes. People who don't pick up their previous exercise regime after an operation, who replace a bicycle by a car, lose out. If you take such steps back on a number of occasions in your life, you lose a lot.” To conclude: “Ageing healthily is a serious sport.”

Myth busters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics

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