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Have you heard of Sarcopenia?

I know you’ve heard of osteoporosis—loss of bone tissue. But have you heard of sarcopenia, which is the loss of muscle tissue? In last week’s blog we discussed how our bodies lose muscle power, mass and fiber-type composition as we age. Both osteoporosis and sarcopenia are a real threat to all of us in our older years.

In January, I participated in an excellent Body Harmonics ( online course called Strength, Balance and Fall Prevention for Seniors with Margot McKinnon. One big takeaway for me from the workshop was that it’s not helpful to let seniors ‘off the hook’ by doing less. Strength is a premium asset for older adults; and to help them maintain and enhance their strength, we as teachers need to design our classes (keeping real limitations in mind) to add ‘intensity’, ‘effort’, and if possible ‘speed’. We should involve fast-twitch muscles fibres not just slow-twitch (see last week’s blog). And heavier weights. If we don’t make this effort, we may be short-changing our older students.

At the same workshop I met Robin Mech, Supervisor of the Active Living Centre 55+, Health and Wellness Programs at YWCA Hamilton.  I recall the passion with which Robin spoke about the success of programs that focused on strength, balance, and a variation of H.I.I.T. (High-Intensity Interval Training) specially formulated for older adults.

H.I.I.T. is a training approach widely researched by a Norwegian scientist, and head of the Cardiac Exercise Research Group at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Ulrik Wisloff. In a typical H.I.I.T. workout, high-intensity moves – such as squats, lunges, jumps, stair climbing/running – are performed for 10 to 30 seconds, followed by ‘rest’ periods that are 2-3 times the length of the intensity moves. And ‘rest’ does not mean sitting down on a bench. In a H.I.I.T. workout, you maintain movement, flow and concentration, albeit with far less intensity; for example, ‘resting’ with slow cycling or marching on the spot. H.I.I.T. has been well documented as successful in improving cardio fitness and building strength. (link to: 7 benefits of H.I.I.T.) And more and more fitness facilities are adapting H.I.I.T. principles and moves for older adults.

Full disclosure: H.I.I.T. is exactly the sort of workout that I have never enjoyed. I don’t like panting and sweating. But clearly, I had to open my mind to new ideas in order to design more effective classes. So, I emailed Robin to find out what she was doing with her seniors at YWCA Hamilton.  She delivers programs for adults ages 55+, with participants in all age groups including many in their nineties participating in classes.  She has been “blown away” by the results, and her online attendance has been exceptional.

The success of their programs, she wrote to me, “is largely due to the encouragement of our instructors to have folks work at the intensity that feels right for them. And to listen to their own body signals for that day or class. Therefore, if a squat is a ‘mini knee bend’ versus a full 90-degree bend, that is okay. It is where their body needs to be for the moment.”

But what are the exact ‘senior movements’ that they do in the class? How much intensity and challenge are being used? How much sweat?

Robin responds: “We do not specify ‘senior movement’. We have everyone participate in the way their body is able. Movement reminders for joint and alignment safety are provided—especially for folks with bone loss (osteoporosis) or arthritis. We incorporate a variety of movements in our workouts,” she adds. “One technique is to try a few ‘bursts’ of higher intensity activity. 10 slow lunge steps followed by 5 to 10 quick ones! With a focus on upright body position and engaging more muscles in the body than just around the foot or knee.”

Another key takeaway from the Body Harmonics Strength, Balance and Fall Prevention workshop was the importance of designing a class that uses both fast- as well as slow-twitch fibers. I asked Robin about this, as well. “Both,” she answers. “Our most popular programs are those that target fast-twitch as well as slow-twitch and provide what older adults need most: strength, balance and core awareness.   This in turn leads to better functioning and coordination in cardio movement classes and in life.  We encourage everyone to participate to the level of their ability for the moment—for the day. And if they need to stop, that is okay. Some folks will join the whole class. Others will participant for 10-15 minutes at a time.”

H.I.I.T.- influenced workouts are not for everyone. Regardless of your fitness level, you should initiate any new program gradually with the help of a trainer familiar with older adults and who uses routines that take into account your special physiological issues. Some participants will need to stick to lower levels of resistance/intensity so as to not stress arthritic joints. If you have recently had a knee or hip replacement you will be advised to avoid high impact exercises and certain movements. (Remember restrictions given immediately after a surgery are not usually forever; ask your physio when you can add in new exercises). If you don’t have the use of heavier weights, or have been told not to use them, then you can consciously add resistance to small weights by imagining that you are pressing your limbs through wet cement. How many reps? As many as you can complete while maintaining good form. As for the lower body, when safe, you can add in the elements of speed, change of directions, and variations. Find the balance between pushing yourself but not feeling pain. Even small changes can improve your muscle performance.

Although my workouts will always be Pilates-based, I am inspired by my email chats with Robin, and all that I learned in the Body Harmonics workshop. I have already encouraged my students to use heavier weights. As for the lower body, I am now adding in more squats, modified or ordinary lunges, some faster movements, and when possible, changes in directions. I also advise complementing Pilates classes with other kinds of activities such as stair climbing, brisk walking and dance classes. And I encourage my students to get outside for workouts whenever possible. A treadmill or stationary bike is fine, but it doesn’t challenge you in the same way as walking on uneven terrain, such as in a park or in the countryside, where you have to make hundreds of micro adjustments to foot pressure and balance.

“Sometimes older people need permission to work harder,” Robin observed to me. “So many people in their lives are telling them to slow down, take it easy, but we tell them ‘do what you can and stop when you need to.”

For a schedule of Health and Wellness programs offered at YWCA Hamilton, go to Robin can be reached at

Colleen Craig

Colleen Craig

Colleen is the author of Pilates on the Ball, Abs on the Ball, and Strength Training on the Ball, and the producer of the Pilates on the Ball DVD.

Disclaimer: The information and services provided in the blogs, videos, website and classes are provided with the understanding that Colleen Craig is not engaged in rendering legal, medical counselling or other professional services or advice.

We highly recommend that you watch the video first before attempting an exercise. Check with your doctor or health care practitioner to be sure these exercises are suitable for you. Pay attention to modifications and stop if there is any discomfort.

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