After the year we’ve all had, it’s no surprise that all of our activity levels have taken a downturn. Most of us have been stuck in the same 5k for the last three months, the gyms are closed, our normal journeys to and from the office are gone and there are only so many Instagram workouts a gal can do.
Essentially, we’re not getting out that much with this new lockdown lifestyle and it’s beginning to have an effect.
‘Sarcopenia is the age-associated decline in muscle mass, strength, and quality that begins as early as the fourth decade of life and is a major contributor to poor health and disability in older adults. The progressive loss of muscle mass and the concomitant decline in muscle strength (dynapenia) are associated with a large and diverse group of pathologies including type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, frailty and disability, increased risk of falls and fractures, loss of physical independence, cognitive decline and depression, lower quality of life, and all-cause mortality.’
Sarcopenia is muscle loss associated with reductions in activity levels and inappropriate nutrition. The lives we are living now are making us prime candidates for this muscle atrophy according to a recent article written by Richard Kirwan, Deaglan McCullough, Tom Butler, Fatima Perez de Heredia, Ian G. Davies and Claire Stewart. Our lives have changed to incorporate a more sedentary lifestyle, a more confined life and increased levels of stress and anxiety, all of which create the perfect storm for loss of muscle mass which can have long-term effects on our health. Without combatting these problems, we accelerate the risk of muscle loss and physical function and the effect that has on multiple aspects of metabolic, physical, and psychological health.
Lack of physical activity
The WHO recommendations around physical activity advise that 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening exercises twice a week are what are needed to live well. Even before Covid hit however, these guidelines were not being followed by most people, but particularly in older communities. Because our lives are so socially distanced now, there is no variety in our exercise routines and we cannot attend training or fitness classes, our already low numbers of activity have gotten even lower. Or as the report puts it, ‘It has never been easier to be physically inactive.’
Our home offices have even cut out our morning commutes and lunchtime walks, meaning we’re inside and inactive more than ever. And it’s affecting children too, with online learning meaning they’re in a similar sedentary boat, spending more time than ever on screen and less than ever outside on their lunch breaks. The report cites and research completed recently in Italy which looked at children aged 6-18 and their activity levels during quarantine. Results showed a decrease of 2.3 hours in sports activity and an increase in electronic device/screen time of 4.85 h per day. Another study found an increase in sitting time from 5 hours to 8 hours per day, a worrying statistic for the sedentary lifestyle-related condition.
But lack of physical activity isn’t the only factor increasing our risk of sarcopenia.
We get it. It’s stressful out there right now. Our days are boring and then the weekend comes around and it’s even more boring because you’ve all this free time and nowhere to go or no one to spend it with! People are fed up and it can feel sometimes like food is the only place in our lives where we can have some variety and try new things. I know plenty of us are living for our weekend takeaway come Friday nights, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But research is showing that many of us are turning to food for comfort. And with exercise down, the increase that is being seen in the number of main meals and snacks that we have been consuming is worrying. The likelihood of stress eating and overconsumption has risen in response to the increased stress and emotions in our lives and when it’s combined with physical inactivity, such dietary changes are associated with poorer markers of cardiometabolic risk. This can include overweight/obesity, hypertension, dyslipidemia, and other features of metabolic syndrome.
With eating and stress becoming closely interlinked, it’s important to look at the emotional stressors that could also be taking their toll on your bodily health.
Stress and lack of sleep
‘Both stress and sleep curtailment can contribute directly to muscle loss through changes in key chemical messengers in metabolic pathways related with muscle mass.’
Social isolation, working from home, health concerns, financial concerns – there’s any amount of reasons to be under pressure and emotionally struggling right now. All of these things are linked – inactivity, diet, sleep, stress – one affects the other affects the other and so on. Our emotional stressors prevent us from sleeping which in turn affects our energy and activity levels which in turn affects what we choose to eat which is also affected by our emotional state. It’s a truly vicious cycle. Another Covid-related Italian report found that 57% of the population were experiencing poor sleep quality, 32% experienced high anxiety and 41% experienced high distress levels. Our brains are constantly struggling to keep up with the stresses in our lives right now, so much so that it’s effecting our physical body.
The report calls on governments to take these lockdown side effects into account when implementing restrictions – though it acknowledges they are indeed necessary from a public health point of view. They propose resistance exercises to improve cardiovascular health and amino acids, or high-protein diets. They recommend following an appropriate and tailored exercise program from home and how resistance bands are a cost-effective way to replace gym equipment. They also recommend meeting your daily step count goals as ‘increasing daily steps has also been reported to lead to improved health-related quality of life, better immune function, and improvements in metabolic syndrome and weight maintenance’.