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Why do older people experience muscle fatigue more easily?

New study seeks to understand why older people get fatigued more easily and how this affects them

Researchers are trying to determine if older adults need to follow different types of exercises.
Researchers are trying to determine if older adults need to follow different types of exercises. (Istockphoto)

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Older adults on a walk or hike, or just going about their daily routines, seem to experience greater fatigue than younger people. Such fatigue may ultimately affect their ability to participate in activities that are meaningful to them and help keep them healthy.

Scientists at the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are trying to understand how muscle fatigue and changes in gait affect the ability of people in their 70s and 80s to remain active.

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"We have worked for many years to understand how age impacts how you move and how physical activity levels or lifestyle factors may influence how quickly or slowly you change to an 'older' movement pattern," said biomechanical engineer Katherine Boyer, the project lead. "This can impact your mobility, your ability to accomplish activities of daily living. We also think that as you move differently it may require more energy," Boyer added.

To assess mobility, they will use a new metric called fatigability that offers a better performance comparison among different age groups. "Fatigability is a measurement that allows us to assess an individual's change in performance and their reports of perceived effort in response to a standardized bout of activity," Boyer said. "So now we have something that's equal for all age groups that we can use in order to quantify fatigue."

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The scientists are recruiting four groups of 15 men and 15 women each: sedentary young adults (ages 30-40) and three groups of 70- to 80-year-olds (healthy, mobility-impaired, and active). Except for the active group, the other participants will be relatively sedentary. "This combination of groups will allow us to evaluate the independent effects of age, physical activity, and mobility impairment, and test for sex effects," Boyer says.

Currently, activity guidelines for older adults are the same as for younger ones - at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity or exercise. It may be, however, that older adults have different needs or specific movements that would be beneficial that this research will begin to inform. "Older people aren't getting lazy. The fatigue is not in their head. Physiological changes are happening that make everyday activities feel more difficult. Our primary goal is to understand how this happens," Boyer said. 

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