Staying home during the coronavirus crisis is the right thing to do. We all need to heed the advice of medical experts and limit our social contact. Unfortunately, for most of us, this means we’re less active than usual. The problem is, the less active we are, the more likely it is that we lose muscle mass. For stroke patients, this muscle loss can happen more quickly than for other people. That’s why it’s important to understand how stroke-related muscle loss is unique and what you can do to fight it — even when you’re stuck at home.
As we age, we expect our bodies to change. This is no surprise. As part of the normal aging process, we start to lose muscle mass, a condition known as sarcopenia. When someone experiences a stroke, they are also affected by sarcopenia. However, the muscle loss one suffers after a stroke is different than the muscle loss that comes from just getting older. How is stroke-related muscle loss different that age-related muscle loss and what you can do about it?
Age-related muscle loss
Researchers from the UK reviewed studies that tracked age-related muscle loss and its health effects. They found a significant difference between people who exercised and those who didn’t. People who did some sort of resistance training had more muscle mass and more strength. They were also expected to live longer and fight off a number of diseases. The researchers concluded that combating age-related muscle loss with weight training, aerobic exercise, and proper nutrition led to a healthier life. Despite the aging body’s natural resistance to muscle growth, people who exercised and ate enough protein were able to preserve the muscle they had and even add a little more. These findings proved that physical strength and the process of building that strength are directly linked to healthy aging. Do the same practices help when we look at the muscle loss that one experiences after a stroke?
Stroke-related muscle loss
Another team of researchers from Berlin, Germany, looked at the ways that stroke patients experience muscle loss and asked how it might be different than regular age-related sarcopenia. They identified the unique characteristics of this condition in stroke patients.
First, because it is injured after a stroke, your brain sends signals that cause the body to go into a state where muscle fibers start to break down (a catabolic state). This state is the opposite of a healthy person who is in a state of growing and building muscle (an anabolic state). That’s why after a stroke, there is a rapid decline of muscle mass. The brain damage causes muscle loss that is quicker than normal age-related sarcopenia.
Besides muscle loss happening more quickly, another distinct feature of stroke-related sarcopenia is that one side of the body is affected more than the other. Since the damage in the brain after a stroke is usually located on one side, there are big differences between each side of the body in terms of physical condition and functional performance.
Another aspect that sets stroke-related sarcopenia apart from the age-related form is that the muscles start to change. There are essentially two types of muscle fibers in the body. Slow-twitch muscles are the first type and are used for long distances or for doing something over an extended period of time. Fast-twitch muscles are the second type. These are used for doing something at a higher pace, however, they fatigue more quickly. After a stroke, the muscles shift to fast-twitch fibers, which explains the feeling of fatigue that many stroke patients experience.
The three things you can do to help with stroke-related sarcopenia
As we just mentioned, after a stroke, your brain is sending signals to your body which put it into a catabolic state, or a state where it is breaking down. What this means is that your muscles are getting signals that make them weaker. Don’t get discouraged because you can apply the same principles used to counteract age-related muscle loss to help combat this process.
- Training is one of the most important things you need to do to build your muscles. Just as with age-related muscle loss, doing things to counteract this process really helps. Bodyweight exercises like squats and lunges help build big muscles in your legs. Lifting hand weights or working with exercise bands are also great ways to build upper body strength.
- Eat the right foods. Making sure you get enough protein in your diet is another great way to build muscle. Eat an extra portion of protein after your training sessions to help build your muscle. Your body needs this in order to provide your muscles with the right nutrients to grow. Foods high in protein include lean meats, fish, greek yogurt, or protein shakes.
- Rest. Many people forget that getting enough sleep and giving yourself a day in between your training sessions is important for your recovery too. The body needs a chance to heal and regenerate.
Where do you start?
Strokemark is working hard to develop a program to help you counteract stroke-related muscle loss. We’ll keep you updated on the progress of the program and let you know when it is available in your area.
In the meantime, while you’re staying home, try implementing some simple exercises. Try alternating days of doing 10 squats and standing on your toes 10 times with days of stretching your legs. Talk with your therapist about exercises you can do at home and make them a part of your therapy routine. There are some great free exercises online you can try as well. Remember to add an extra portion protein to your diet and get enough sleep. Making these small conscious changes can greatly influence how you recover from your stroke and can keep you fit during the coronavirus crisis.
The lead authors of these studies are:
Michael McLeod from MRC-ARUK Centre of Musculoskeletal Ageing Research and the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Birmingham, UK.
Nadja Scherbakov MD, from the Center for Stroke Research CSB, Charite University Medical School, Berlin, Germany.