Listen to Your Muscles

Listen to Your Muscles

They're your brain's Uber: When you want to get from here to there, you call the right muscles to put you in motion. These body lessons will keep you strong and moving along.

Fast Facts:

  • 650: Number of muscles in the body.
  • 35%: Average amount of your weight that's made up of muscle.
  • 7: Number of calories per hour a pound of muscle burns. A pound of fat burns as little as two.
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It Takes More Than One Muscle to Shift Your Shape

Regardless of what some late-night fitness advertorials say, you can't slim your thighs with hundreds of leg lifts or crunch your abs away. Focusing on a single muscle makes it stronger but won't magically burn off the fat layer on top. To change your shape, you need to build more muscle everywhere — that helps you burn more total calories all day long, which melts fat. Be efficient by doing exercises that work many muscles at once, such as squats and push-ups. Of course, aerobic activities like brisk walking help burn fat too.

They Get Torn Down, But Build Back Stronger

When you ask your muscles to do something they're not used to — like a Zumba marathon or a hike up a steep hill — they're going to complain a little the next day. That soreness is a form of strain that happens because your muscles aren't working together smoothly, says David Costill, PhD, director emeritus of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. As a result of the disconnect, you get little tears in the fibers, which lead to inflammation you experience as "ouch."

The good part: While your body mends those stressed-out muscles, it gives them a little extra power on the theory that "hey, we need to get stronger if she's going to keep doing this." Until they finish knitting themselves back together, ease next-day aches with a warm bath or a heating pad, and do a little gentle activity to boost circulation, which brings in nutrient-rich blood to help them heal.

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Strong Muscles Will Hang Around a Long Time, Provided That You Treat Them Right

It's a myth that everyone loses muscle as they age. In a stunning study that compared MRI images of the legs of 40-year-old athletes to athletes in their seventies, both looked identically lean and healthy. By contrast, sedentary 70-somethings' were nearly half fat, with some weak, flabby muscle in the middle. The athletes in both age groups did a lot of exercise to keep their legs strong — biking, swimming, or running four to five days a week. To hold on to the muscle you have, move around as much as you can, and do 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity and two sessions of strength training.

3 Amazing Things Your Muscles Do

1. They mop up blood fats. Your muscles have special enzymes that break down unhealthy fats in your bloodstream called triglycerides so they don't damage your arteries, says Marc Hamilton, PhD, director of the Texas Obesity Research Center at the University of Houston. Sitting for long periods of time shuts down these enzymes' activity by up to 90 percent. Experts recommend that you take an active break from sitting at least every 30 minutes.

2. They make you happy. There's a two-way conversation between your brain and your muscles. Your noggin tells your muscles to move, and when they do, the brain lights up like a slot machine at full tilt, creating a bundle of reactions that raise your number of brain cells and boost feel-good chemicals. These can help you fend off depression, and they're why you generally feel cheerier after taking a brisk walk.

3. They help control blood sugar. Your muscles use glucose (blood sugar), especially when they're in motion. Studies show that building muscle by strength training may keep blood sugar levels steady in people with diabetes.

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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