Muscle Cramps and Exercise

A muscle cramp is defined as a painful, involuntary, spasmodic contraction of a muscle. The muscle remains contracted and may last for a few seconds to several minutes. The muscles most prone to EAMCs are those that cross two joints – for example the calf muscle called the gastocnemius (crosses the ankle and knee joint) and the hamstrings (cross the knee and hip joint).

There are many theories surrounding the cause of muscle cramps. Some proposed causes are fluid loss and dehydration, electrolyte imbalances (sodium, potassium, magnesium), heat and congenital/inherited conditions. Recent evidence collected by Professor Martin Schwellnus at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa indicates no strong relationship between these causes and exercise cramps. After completing several studies and studying the results of other experiments using electromyography or EMG (measures muscle nerve electric activity), Schwellnus has proposed a novel model of the cause of EAMCs.

Dr. Schwellnus identifies two possible factors that may affect nerve activity – causing excessive muscle stimulation to contract and resulting in a cramp. The first suspected factor is fatigue; since motor nerve firing patterns have been demonstrated to be irregular during conditions of fatigue. The second factor is proposed as resulting from the muscle working too much on its “inner range” or “on slack”.

To explain this concept it must first be understood that a muscle cannot work efficiently if it is not at its optimal length – a muscle works progressively less efficiently when overly stretched or overly loose/on slack. The protein filaments (actin and myosin) that make up muscle fibers require an optimal “overlap” to be able to generate force.

The position of the body’s joints determine muscle length, so it follows that muscles that cross two joints like the gastroc and hamstrings might be more likely to operate in the slackened position and experience a cramp. For example, consider a free-style, swimmer who performs flutter kicks at the ankle with a slight knee bend. The flutter kick involves the ankle flexing and extending in a small range very near the plantarflexed (toes pointed) position. Couple this with a slight knee bend, and it makes the gastrocnemius muscle even more “passively insufficient”.

Muscle physiology plays crucial role in the understanding of EAMC’s. Most significantly, the small cellular bodies of the muscle spindle and the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO). The muscle spindle is a tiny cellular structure usually located in the middle portion of each muscle fiber. Very basically its role is to “switch on” a muscle and determine the amount of activation and the strength and speed of the contraction. The GTO is a small structure located in the tendon that joins the muscle to a bone. This structure senses muscle tension and performs the opposite role of “switching off ” the muscle in order to protect it from generating so much force as to rip right off the bone.

Dr. Schwellnus suggests that when a muscle works within its inner range and/or when fatigued, muscle nerve activity shifts progressively toward muscle spindle activity (contraction) and less toward GTO activity (relaxation). More specifically, the nerves that control the muscle spindle (Type IA and type II nerves) becomes overly active while the nerves that controls the GTO (Type Ib nerves) become under active or inhibited. The result of this nerve activity imbalance is an uncontrolled, painful cramp.

If you should experience an EAMC, the best solution is to perform a gentle, passive stretch of the affected muscle. Do not attempt to walk or run it off. Slow, passive stretching will act to restore nerve balance to the muscle by increasing the activity of the GTO, while simultaneously minimizing that of the muscle spindle. Stretching increases tension in the tendon, which is sensed by the GTO.

The result is a relaxation of the contracted muscle and a breaking of the muscle cramp. For example, in the case of the swimmer mentioned earlier, to stretch the gastrocnemius he or she may perform a standard calf stretch while pushing against a wall or use a stretching strap or cord to pull the foot up toward the shin. To accentuate the stretch, it is important that the knee remain straight, since as mentioned this muscle crosses the knee joint.

The best way to control and prevent EAMC’s is to begin a regimented stretching routine. It may be beneficial to perform dynamic stretches after a brief warmup at the beginning of the exercise session or workout. Dynamic stretches involve using functional movements such as lunging, squatting and reaching and can be used to simultaneously train balance and core stability while sensitizing the muscles in preparation for exercise. In fact, dynamic stretches if performed correctly, may actually serve as a warm-up in themselves.

Static stretching may be more effective at the end of the exercise session as part of the cool down, as the muscles will be warm and more pliable. The best long-term solution to control EAMC’s however is to restore muscle balance throughout the body by combining stretching with a well-designed functional strength training routine -concentrating specifically on core stability.

In conclusion, muscle cramping is a complex condition and this article has hopefully provided the reader with a new perspective on the scientific relationship between exercise and muscle cramping. The fact that cramps occur most often in the situations described make this model a very plausible and practical one. It is hoped that this information will assist the casual exerciser and professional athlete alike in understanding and dealing with exercise related muscle cramps.

Fitness For Mature Person

Studies show that almost half of folks older than 75 get little physical activity and because even moderate activity can make a big difference in overall energy levels and motivation don’t let your age put you off.

It doesn’t take hours a day of activity to result in better health, either, becoming more physically active can prevent some health problems (such as osteoporosis) and help better manage others, like diabetes and high blood pressure.

The increased flexibility and balance helps the older individual remain independent longer, too. A few minutes spent stretching in the mornings upon awakening can limber up muscles and joints so that it’s easier to move throughout the day.

Muscle strengthening activity increases bone mass and protects against falls. Walking is the easiest and best aerobic activity, if a person is mobile. You don’t have to spend hours or even 30 minutes at a time walking-you can break it up in to small chunks of time, such as 5 or 10 minute segments.

Even gardening and working around the house counts as exercise when we’re talking about muscle and bone-strengthening; it’s weight-bearing exercise that makes a difference in the strength of your bones and the elasticity of your muscles.

Just getting up and moving throughout the day – doing light household chores helps one stay healthier. Exercise boosts the immune system and keeps one healthier during the winter months.

What are some benefits from light to moderate exercise for seniors?

  • Improved mood and quality of life
  • Improvement in arthritis
  • Improved sleep
  • Protects against heart disease
  • Facilitates the ability to get around or dress oneself

The mobility and functioning of frail and very old adults can be improved by regular physical activity. Physical activity need not be strenuous to bring health benefits. What is important is to include activity as part of a regular routine.

Exercise can help you feel better and enjoy life more. No one is too old or too out of shape to be more active.

Get the grand kids involved in batting a balloon back and forth to great-grandma, or take them to the zoo and walk around. If mobility is less-than-ideal, keep them around the house and play outside for short periods of time. Grand kids will keep you young-both in spirit and body. So take advantage of their energy levels and get yourself moving!

Strength Training for Women

Strength training was once shunned by women who feared becoming “bulked up”. Only a few men and women have the potential to add large amounts of muscle. Women can increase strength with a much smaller increases in muscle compared to men. Those small increases in muscle add shape to the body, increase tone, and make you look better. The stronger your body is, the more toned you will be. Athletes have incredible body tone because they are very strong. That does not come from lifting light weights several times. It comes for imposing rigorous demands on the body that force it to adapt and become stronger.

Muscle is much denser than fat and will not significantly add to that bulked up look as much as an increase in fat would. Besides, if you are one of the select few women with the capacity to add significant amounts of muscle, the muscle increase occurs very slowly and you can stop increasing the weights you are lifting if and when too much muscle appears imminent. Most will find that they never will reach that point. Often people mistake the bulked-up look to muscle, but more often the real reason is fat. It is much more difficult to increase muscle than fat.

An increase in muscle and strength occurs when muscles are worked intensely. To do this two things must happen: (1) Demands are places on the body beyond a level that the muscles are equipped to handle: and (2) the body is giving adequate time to rebuilt after the exercise stimulus. The strength increases occur during recovery periods not during exercise. That’s why rest is important and the danger of overtraining is great when too much time is spent strength training.

It does not take hours in the gym each week to get results. Drudgery is not a requirement to increase strength. Just 30 minutes a week can produce remarkable results. To maximize results work intensely. If you are working intensely, workouts cannot be very long. The more intensely you work the more recovery time you will need and the less frequently you will need to workout. More time in the gym will not result in more improvement if the body is not given enough time to recover.

While many exercise for its cosmetic benefits, the health benefits are considerable, and far more important.

Increased bone density. Osteoporosis studies confirm what has been suspected for years. Strong muscles make for strong bones. Women who have undergone weight training have been able to significantly increase bone densities.

Lessen the debilitating affects of Osteoarthritis. Cartilage acts as a cushion between the bones and as a shock absorber when the body is subjected to excessive forces. Eventually the cushion wears out. You can hasten that process by engaging in excessive high impact exercise. Too much running and improper weight training can produce such unwanted results. Each body is different and some are less suited to this pounding than others. Weight training should be performed in such a manner where excessive force is minimized.

Protection of joints and connective tissue. Excessive force causes injury. This can be caused by a single event such as a turned ankle, or it can be caused by repetitive use. In either case the body has been compromised. If it is not allowed sufficient time to heal the condition often becomes chronic. Once a joint has been damaged the best you can do outside of surgery is to strengthen the muscles around those joints. This is best accomplished through strength training. Running will not make the muscles stronger. In fact excessive running can make the muscles weaker and in some case cause injury. According to Runner’s World 70 percent of those who run regularly for a year will experience an injury. This is not to say that people should not run (There are of course some who should not run.). People should not run to the point of injury.

Increased muscle tissue and range of motion. It is simple, if you don’t use it you lose it. As adults we lose about 10 ounces of lean muscle a year after the age of 30. If we don’t use the muscles the body has no need for extra calorie burning tissue. As we age we gradually lose the strength to move through a complete range of motion. This loss of flexibility is called adaptive shorting. Your body adapts to the demands or lack of demands placed on it. Proper strength training can reverse this muscle loss better than other forms of exercise and will produce enhanced flexibility. While it is good to be more flexible (safely increase your range of motion), enhanced flexibility is better. Enhanced flexibility is the ability to move through a greater range of motion and have more strength through that increased range of motion. With enhanced flexibility you will be stronger, feel better and reduce the likelihood of injury. There is no need to go through life with compromises in abilities and constant aches and pains.

Lower body fat, higher metabolism, and lower blood sugar. Each pound of muscle lost means a lower basal metabolic rate of 50 to 70 calories. A lower metabolism means less fat burning and a greater propensity to add fat. Muscle aids in the disposition of blood sugar. A more muscular body will burn more fat, control blood sugar, and lessen the likelihood of type 2 diabetes.

Protection against injury and immune deficiencies. The No. 1 one reason people end up in nursing homes is due to the loss of strength to carry out daily activities. With decreased strength, balance becomes more of a problem. Falls are more prevalent and injuries result – next stop the nursing home. A person with a stronger body is less likely to sustain injuries, less likely to fall, and is more able to withstand the debilitating effects of sickness.

The benefits are huge and the time required is minimal. You should operate from the premise that it is not how much exercise you can withstand; it is how much is required to produce optimal results. Anything beyond that which produces maximal results is a waste of time and counterproductive as your body cannot adequately recover from the exercise stimulus. If you attempt to put in as much time as possible strength training hoping for improved results, the only improvement will be in the wallet of your trainer.

Exercises to Tone Abdominal Muscle

  • Sit ups: Sit ups are the most common and most utilised form of exercise to tone abdominal muscles.
    To perform sit ups correctly, lie on the ground with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Hold your hands behind your earlobes and then proceed to tighten your abdominal muscles by drawing your belly button back towards your spine. Now slowly lift your head and shoulders off the ground by contracting your abdominal muscles. Only lift as high as you are comfortable with, all the while keeping your feet flat on the floor.
    Hold the position for a second, then slowly return to the lying position- do not lay back on the floor, rather, keep your shoulders raised slightly. Repeat this as many times as necessary.

If you find you are having difficulty keeping your feet on the ground, try securing them under a piece of furniture, such as a couch or bed.
Once the sit ups become easier, begin adding weights and continuing to lift heavier and heavier weights.

  • Crunches: To perform a crunch, lie on the floor with your knees bent and feet placed flat on the floor. Cross your arms over your chest and tighten your abdominal muscles by drawing your belly button back towards your spine. Now, raise your shoulders off the floor whilst keeping your back straight. Remember to exhale through your mouth whilst performing a crunch.
    Once you have raised your shoulders a sufficient distance, pause for a second and finish exhaling. Slowly lower your shoulders back towards the ground without letting your head touch the ground. Repeat this process as many times as necessary.
  • Leg Lifts: To perform a leg lift, lie on the floor with your legs flat and hands at your sides. Lift your legs straight up to point at the ceiling, then lower them without letting them touch the floor. Continue lifing and lowering your legs. Alternatively you may hold yourself up on a bar and perform a leg lift by raising your knees to your chest.
  • Jackknife sit ups: To perform a jack knife sit up, lie down flat on the floor with you hands on the ground at your sides. Now, raise your knees and your torso in order to allow your face and knees meet (or come close to meeting). Hold this position for a second then lay back flat. Repeat this process as many times as necessary.
    Once this process has become easy enough, try placing weights between your feet.
  • V-ups: To perform a V-up, lie flat on the floor with your hands extended over your head touching the ground. Raise your legs and torso simultaneously, keeping your legs straight. Reach yoru hands towards your feet and touch them if possible. Hold this position for a second then return to the flat position. Repeat this process as many times as necessary.

Muscle Soreness

The uncomfortable sensation in your muscles during a workout is caused by metabolic waste products that build up during exercise. Lactic acid is one waste product that has long been labeled the culprit of this burning sensation.

Lactic acid is also given a bad rap when trainers state that lactic acid causes the next-day soreness that sometimes occurs in the days after strength training. This is untrue. Lactic acid does not cause soreness. The soreness is likely caused by muscle damage and inflammation.

In fact, lactic acid is cleared from your muscles in minutes after exercise (and it is almost completely cleared within an hour at the most). After all, we know through experience that the burning sensation does not last beyond the post-workout shower. And if you spend a little extra time in your cool-down, you can even help remove the lactic acid faster.

Unfortunately there really is no way around the muscle soreness that will show up tomorrow or two days later (as is often the case for lower-body muscle soreness). If your training caused muscle damage (as strength workouts tend to do – but in a safe, strategic and effective manner), then you will probably have a little bit of muscle soreness tomorrow.

You just have to cut down the volume to avoid getting so sore. So don’t jump back into the weight room by doing 3 sets per exercise. Do 1 easy set, and you won’t be too sore.

Muscle Burning

If you run or cycle as hard as you can, you start to breathe hard, and suddenly your leg muscles start to burn because your muscles have become acidic. It’s the burning in your muscles that forces you to slow down. Muscles get the energy to move your body from the food that you eat. Carbohydrates are broken down step by step in a chain of reactions to release energy for your muscles. Each step requires oxygen. If you have enough oxygen, the carbohydrates are eventually broken down to carbon dioxide and water that you can blow off from your lungs. However, if you can’t get all the oxygen that you need, the series of reactions stops and lactic acid accumulates in your muscles and spills over into your bloodstream. The acidity in muscles caused by the accumulation of lactic acid is what makes your muscles burn.

When acid is exposed to an alkaline or base, it combines with it to neutralize the acid and form water. What would happen when an athlete takes the base, sodium bicarbonate, before he competes? He would be able to exercise longer if the bicarbonate got into the muscle and neutralized the burning caused by the acid. The authors of this study showed that higher doses of sodium bicarbonate were more effective in preventing burning. This exercise aid is still experimental, so we will have to wait for further research to see if it really works.