Menopause, Andropause and now “Somatopause”?

bodybuilder poseWell it’s no secret what menopause is.  Luckily there’s an increasing body of information widely available out about it these days.  Among other hormonal shifts, the primary change in menopause and peri-menopause occurs with estrogen levels.  Estrogen production decreases as women age, and move away from the reproductive stage of life.

Men have an equivalent transition as their androgens shift and the production of testosterone wanes.

Somatopause is not as commonly discussed and the term might be unfamiliar, but depending on your age you might not be surprised to hear what it is.  This is a change that happens for both men and women as we approach later life.  The prefix soma comes from the Greek meaning “body”.  In medicine the term somatic refers to the physical body – the machine: muscles and bones.

If you’re someone who’s nearing mid life or just past it, then you may already have noticed that your body is definitely changing – possibly even before you notice changes in estrogen or testosterone.  In addition to finding hairs where there didn’t used to be any or skin tags in inconvenient places, skin may not be as firm or as thick, but above all, our muscle mass is suddenly not what it used to be.  Many middle aged people will notice that seeing and feeling the results of exercise becomes harder and harder.  It becomes really easy to lose the effects of exercise.  The decrease in muscle mass and the decreased ability to build muscle is what the term “somatopause” refers to.

Somatopause, or this decrease in muscle mass, just like the other two ” -pauses”, is also because of a decreasing hormone.  In this case it’s the human growth hormone (HGH).  The human muscle cell (sarcomere) needs HGH in order to grow.   Our body stops naturally making as much growth hormone as we do when we’re younger.

Does this mean we should all just roll over and become flabby and weak?  We certainly can but it’s not a fate we have to accept silently. At the very least this information should make us want to work a little harder at staying with an exercise regimen.  The “Move it or Lose it” adage definitely becomes louder and clearer the older we get.

Incidentally, there’s some really interesting evidence just coming to light recently that seems responsible for feeding yet another trendy exercise fad.  In recent months you may have heard more and more about high intensity interval training.  The allure of this kind of workout is that it touts much less of a time commitment in the gym (for the busy professionals) but promising to deliver the same or better outcomes fitness-wise.

Well, I’m the first to dig my heels in when I notice the frenzy for a fad taking hold and I always advise caution to all patients considering trying this particular one – no matter what age.  The potential for injury is high when we combine speed or time stress with intensity since neither leave much room for focusing on safe form unless closely supervised.  So, I generally don’t advise anyone to do this kind of training, but I am changing my tune a little bit and here’s why:

Studies have shown this kind of training appreciably stimulates an increase in growth hormone production. So, if  it’s done safely, the high intensity, short spurts of exercise can be particularly useful to those of us approaching somatopause.  The added stints of growth hormone production will aid in the building of muscle mass even in someone who has entered this stage of life where the natural decline of HGH has begun!

If you’re struggling to put on muscle mass don’t forget to think about your nutrient intake but you might as well also consider  kicking it up a notch once or twice a week for the sake of these muscle building benefits.  But don’t leave behind the traditional workouts that you enjoy.  It’s far too important to our brain chemistry to leave those behind.  Workouts of a minimum of 30 min. and longer, will be what give you a good dose of “happy chemicals”.  These will become more important as you add the naturally more stress hormone inducing high intensity workouts, simply for balance. (Take a moment to read this post to learn why it’s important for some people to be especially careful with stress inducing activities – you might be adding fuel to the fire despite your best intentions)

I hope you’ll consider the fact that maintaining and gaining muscle mass at all ages is not just about looks. You will look great and feel much better about your looks but more importantly, it’s very much about life sustaining function that will make all aspects of daily living easier, safer and seamless.  It’s a biological fact that movement is ultimately what sustains life and you can’t move if you don’t have muscle!

 

References:

http://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2013/06/21/interval-training.aspx

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10442584

Yoga: The View From Inside

DSC03011The other morning I forgot to put in my contact lenses before going to yoga. I go to this hot yoga place where they keep the temperature at 105 deg. I don’t even want to know how hot it gets when the class is full with all those bodies generating even more heat… So, wearing glasses is really not an option for me in this situation because of how dripping wet my face gets about 5 minutes into the class — rendering the bridge of my nose a hostile environment for even my super lightweight titanium frames.

I started learning yoga almost 15 years ago in the traditional and more humanely temperature controlled studios around town. The first thing that struck me and bothered me a bit when I was still new at it, was the lack of mirrors. I was used to looking at myself while exercising which up until that point had usually been in a gym. I had always found it reassuring to check in with my form and was quite attached to that feedback for the sake of symmetry, and safe movement. But, it didn’t take long for me to realize and appreciate what this new absence of my own reflection was gifting me.

I was finding myself uncomfortably forced to appreciate and trust the watchful eyes of yoga instructors who came around to give gentle cues through touch about how to move further into or out of poses. But the other more yoga sutra or philosophical type of teaching that came from learning not to see my reflection, was an inward focus that filled a completely foreign set of senses with awareness, and questioning.

I’m no stranger to looking inward in order to quiet the mind. However, it’s quite another thing to use the mind’s eye for initiating and contemplating physical effort. Turning your “eyes” in to focus on sensation relies on, and therefore develops, confidence that intention is translating into execution effectively. It’s not only a good exercise for the brain by forcing you to access your inherent mechanisms of balance and flow, but it’s a great reminder of how to tap into what that balance and flow feels like on the inside. The sensations are what inform how you move through your day and if you want to do it well, it’s best to tune in regularly about how to let your sensations guide you. As with anything, practice makes perfect or at least leads to improvement and having the opportunity to practice with tuning in to your body from the inside rather than the outside, during yoga class, even just once a week, will make for a more accurate connection with your body — what you intend to do with it and how it actually performs.

The hot yoga world breaks this rule a little bit. The studio I’ve been frequenting has two walls of mirrors. I have to admit despite my previous enlightenment about tuning in and gazing inward during practice, I’ve been enjoying the external feedback of that image in the mirror, and that validation for my efforts. It’s very easy to be seduced and distracted by the visual. Even though I tell myself “So what if there are mirrors? I don’t need them.” But I’d be fibbing if I said I didn’t sneak a peek here and there either to smugly congratulate my efforts or remind myself I have a lot of work ahead of me — depending on the state of my self esteem that day.

One idea is that mirrors will help you face the truth about yourself and monitor improvement in order to motivate. Mirrors will help you watch for your mechanics and form. But what we perceive in the mirror is not nearly as accurate and truthful as how it feels inside. One huge problem with our preoccupation by the appearance of poses is that it can be extremely deceiving. What we think looks “beautiful” and “correct” for one body can be mechanically completely unsound for another. The only way to avert this pitfall is to look inside, listen and tune in.

Not wearing my contact lenses that day and not being able to keep my glasses on my face forced me back into that brief discomfort. Practicing without being able to see myself once again forced me to let go of my distraction with the externals and served as a rich reminder that the most truthful feedback about performance whether it’s physical, occupational, or in relationship, is how it feels.

Namaste.

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