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Even 'weaker' sex

Daly Mail
Wednesday, January 23, 2013

CAN you whisk eggs without your arms aching, or push a car that's broken down?

Your grandmother might have been able to do this, but chances are you can't.

For new evidence suggests humans are getting weaker — today's generation simply don't have the same muscle power as their parents.

And it's women who are affected most.

"In Western countries such as the UK, US and Canada, muscular strength has hit a plateau and muscular endurance — the ability to repeatedly exert force, such as doing sit-ups — has declined by 8 to 10per cent since the 80s," says Dr Grant Tomkinson, senior lecturer in health sciences at the University of South Australia, a leading researcher on trends in fitness over time.

It seems our average muscle power peaked in 1985 — since then we've increased in weight, but our muscles have got weaker and weaker, especially among women.

"I'm seeing a massive epidemic of weak women who have no muscle strength," says London-based physiotherapist Sammy Margo.

"There are skinny women who have no muscles supporting their spine, and overweight ladies who don't have any muscles under the fat."

Women's lack of muscle has serious implications for their health.

Experts say poor muscle strength is to blame for a host of health problems such as osteoporosis and fractures, arthritis and back pain.

So why are women so weedy — and what should they do about it?

It takes only a cursory comparison of the covers of men's and women's magazines to understand the differences in what motivates men and women to exercise.

While men strive to get "the ultimate six pack" and "more body bulk now", women's objectives tend to be negative - to lose fat and burn calories rather than gain strength.

Ken Fox, professor of exercise and health sciences at the University of Bristol, says: "The majority of young females want to look thin.

"They don't eat much, they don't exercise much, and because of that they have weak musculatures — it's really not a healthy way to be."

A survey by the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation found 40per cent of women said feeling better about their appearance was the main factor that motivated them to exercise; in another, a third of women said they felt more pressure to be thin than healthy.

Girls and women often avoid muscle-building exercise such as weightlifting or press-ups because they're afraid of becoming too muscular and bulky.

Even the golden girl of the London Olympics, Jessica Ennis, has admitted she had at first been concerned about weight training because she "didn't want to be all muscly".

But many experts say it's actually difficult for women to "bulk up" because of their hormones.

This resistance exercise, as it is known, triggers muscle growth by causing small amounts of trauma to the muscles — the body repairs the damage by adding protein strands to the muscle to increase its strength and size.

Testosterone is the hormone that triggers this process and men naturally have higher levels of it than women, meaning it's much harder for women to develop big muscles, explains Professor Fox.

"They can get toned but looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't an issue," he says.

Women also can't lose as much fat — men can conceivably get down to 4per cent body fat while women typically cannot get lower than 10per cent.

Women evolved this way because they need more fat to bear children.

Today's children are set up for a life of puniness from an early age, thanks partly to our increasingly indoor lifestyles.

Dr Gavin Sandercock, a lecturer in sports science at Essex University, tested the strength of 315 Essex 10-year-olds in 2008 and compared the results from children of the same age in 1998.

Today's children managed only around two thirds of the sit-ups of the previous generation; arm strength had fallen by 26 per cent and grip by 7 per cent.

Dr Sandercock says he was especially concerned by the children's poor performance at sit-ups, because "your ability to do sit-ups has been shown to be an indicator of back pain in later life".

Meanwhile, in a study by the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation of 1,500 schoolchildren, half the 14-year-old girls surveyed said getting sweaty was "not feminine", and a third of boys said girls who are sporty are not feminine.

It probably doesn't help that teachers don't have the right specialist PE training, which is leaving younger generations "physically illiterate", as Susan Campbell, the head of UK Sport said last week.

She claimed this lack of training means thousands of children start secondary school unable to run, jump, throw a ball or catch.

Women's disregard for muscles may be costing them dearly. Muscles are the 'scaffolding' that holds the body up, vital for protecting the joints and bones, and it's essential to start building muscle in early life to avoid miserable repercussions.

Numerous studies have shown the strength of your muscles can be a key indicator of longevity.

Healthy muscles reduce the risk of falls in later life, says Professor Janet Lord, director of the Arthritis Research UK Centre for Musculoskeletal Ageing Research.

"Muscle allows you to control your movement,' she says. "So if you do have a trip, you fall in a controlled way and there's less chance you'll fracture your wrist for example."

Strong muscles are also vital for preventing sore backs. Sammy Margo blames the endemic problem of back pain on weak tummy, or "core" muscles.

It's the stomach muscles that hold you up straight when sitting or standing.

But if these are weak, we tend to use the tiny muscles in the back, which leads to damage.

If you have poor tummy muscles, you tend to slump and overstretch the muscles, tendons, ligaments and discs in the back — setting up inflammation and, in the long-term, chronic back pain," she explains.

"It's not just back pain but ankles, neck pain, shoulder pain, even knee pain.

"You can postpone or prevent the need for a knee replacement just by building up the surrounding muscle."

Healthy muscles rely on regular intake of protein — it is essential for the structure and functioning of muscle cells.

Catherine Collins, principal dietitian at St George's Hospital, London, says recent health concerns over meat, and the growing popularity of extreme diets that exclude whole food groups, such as veganism, means more and more women may be missing out on protein.

"The best sources are meat and dairy products," she says. 'It's essential we get about 60g a day — equivalent to an 8oz steak or 200g chicken breast."

Being deficient in protein can have devastating effects, she adds.

"If you're not getting enough protein from food, your body cannibalises your own tissue. It starts by taking from your muscle bulk, but then it will use organs."

Our sedentary lifestyle has been blamed for expanding waistlines, but it is also causing our muscles to waste away, say experts.

The decline in manual labour means our jobs are now overwhelmingly office based, and even getting up to go to a meeting has been replaced by email.

"It's not just the fact that the average person sits for eight hours a day," says Sammy Margo.

"We have remote controls so we don't have to get up to change channels, and cars and internet shopping so we don't have to walk to work or school or carry heavy shopping back home."

There may be good news on the horizon, however, thanks largely to the stunning success of Britain's female athletes at last summer's London Olympics.

Lucy Wyndham Read, a personal trainer, has noticed a shift in women's requests and aims.

"Women are now asking for an athletic shape. They want to look feminine, but have definition and tone," she says.

Strong could be the new sexy — and it's healthier, to boot.





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