BBC TV’s flagship health programme, “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor”, has enlisted the help of the Centre for Musculoskeletal Ageing Research (CMAR) members at the University of Nottingham to find out if the age-related loss of muscle mass and function can be minimised by a simple but regular home-based exercise programme.
The team has also been testing the efficiency of a harmless ‘stable isotope tracer’ drink, and muscle ultrasound techniques, as a way of measuring changes in lean muscle mass.
The demographics of the UK population are shifting ever towards that of being more aged due to the baby boom of the second world war, but more importantly, improved healthcare and medicine. Yet, increased lifespan is not keeping pace with ‘healthspan’ — a major reason for this being age-related frailty. BBC TV’s investigative Doctor Michael Mosley visited our Nottingham laboratory to report on the project and the episode aired at 8 pm on Wednesday 6 January 2016.
Tangible exercise benefits
The clinical trial found there was a marked improvement in muscle strength and power, both of which are important for maintaining habitual function and preventing falls in older age. There was also an increase in thigh muscle in the healthy middle-aged to older volunteers. This means that the volunteers benefited from home-based exercise with a tangible increase in function and muscle mass — both are tied to healthy ageing.
Fourteen healthy volunteers aged 45 to 73 took part in the study. Baseline measurements of weight and blood pressure were taken at the start, and a series of muscle strength, muscle bulk and health tests were recorded. A special drink was taken on the same day containing creatine, a metabolite that occurs naturally in the body. This was used as a way to measure muscle mass by an analysis of the creatinine produced by the tracer drink in urine samples collected for 24 hours and further samples at 48 and 72 hours.
The group spent four weeks after baseline testing carrying out a range of simple exercises in the course of their normal daily routines. These included lunges using a vacuum cleaner, calf raises while dusting high up, bicep curls using small weights when cooking, triceps extensions using a towel after bathing, press ups against a wall, oblique twists with a weighted washing basket and a deadlift using a broom or similar.
Increased fitness and wellbeing
Leading the research for BBC Trust Me I’m a Doctor, Dr Philip Atherton said: “This study shows that adopting a home-based programme of exercises aimed at increasing physical function was surprisingly effective. The strength testing revealed an eight percent increase in muscle strength across the group, with ultrasound scans showing an increase in the thigh muscle. The creatine tracer drink/urine analysis, however, did not show any difference and we believe that is because the measurement is of the whole body rather than specific muscles.
“We hope that the general public will now take it upon themselves to consider incorporating similar muscle-strengthening workouts to help maintain physical function and health — this means you don’t necessarily have to go to the gym or use specialist equipment to realise some of the benefits of exercise!”
One of the participants, Stuart from Derby, said: “I do feel fitter for doing the exercises. I find the toothbrush squats and the leg lunges most beneficial and I’ve found unused muscles even though I go to the gym twice a week.”
Peter, also from Derby, added: “I have found everyday movements have become easier, for example putting on socks. I feel I have more physical control, better balance and an increased feeling of well-being. I think the programme is a fine example of a wise saying of an old boss of mine — ‘There’s more folk that rust out than wear out!’”