musclesStaying active is the key to staying healthy, especially for people who’ve passed the half-century mark. Older people who exercise at least 30 minutes a day have a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer and less chance of falling, and they possess greater cognitive function than their sedentary counterparts, according to the World Health Organization. The goal of your daily routine is to build or maintain muscle mass without doing extensive damage or causing major discomfort.

How Muscles Grow

Let’s start with a little anatomy lesson. Muscles are long, fibrous cells that connect our skeletal structure so our bones can move. These special cells have the ability to contract. When you force the muscles to contract with resistance, like holding a weight or moving through water, the muscle fibers tear a little bit. This is called micro-damage, and it is the basis of muscle growth. As your body repairs the microscopic injury, your muscle mass increases, making you stronger. The inflammation from this damage is what causes muscle soreness the next day. MedicineNet goes into more detail of the biology of the process, if you’re interested.

Our Muscles as We Age

As a person ages, muscle mass and strength decreases. This is part of the metabolic changes associated with aging. The only way to stop this is to keep exercising. This is the consummate case of, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

The aging muscle has been researched extensively over the past decade. One of the most important findings, confirmed by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, is that the biggest difference between young and old muscular structure is the muscle mass, not the quality of the muscle. Regular, rigorous activity will maintain muscle mass well into your later years.

Exercise After 55

An exercise routine for a healthy person over 55 looks much like that for someone under 30. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that older adults engage in strength training and cardio activity several days a week. One beneficial difference to being older is that you may have more opportunity to get some healing sleep. If you are building muscle, you will need it. Talk to your doctor about starting an exercise program.

No Pain, No Gain

The soreness you experience in the days following an intense workout is part of the muscle growth package. A combination of ice, heat and massage will help. Ice the sore area for 20 minutes, and then hop into a hot tub to relax the muscles. Hot Tub Works carries a variety of styles and brands of at-home hot tubs. To find a massage therapist near you, visit the American Massage Therapy Association. If the pain persists, Bengay may help, as can an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen.

The best remedy for muscle pain from a good workout? Sleep. Sleeping gives your body the time needed to repair the damage. If the pain is too much or persists past three days, consult your doctor.