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Last updated April 22, 2017, originally published February 22, 2016
By L. Carr, Contributing Columnist
Everyone gets old. It’s a given that the years pass and our bodies age.
But a corresponding decline in health and strength is not set in stone.
The strength of your muscles and, in particular, your calf muscles
affects your levels of activity, your overall health, and even your
chances of dying from diseases like cancer and heart disease. By 2050,
two billion people in the world will be over the age of 65 according to a
University of Auckland study (2014). How do we maintain mobility and
quality of life in older age? Start by looking at your calf muscles.
A Closer Look at the Calf Muscles
You have one calf muscle on the back of each lower leg. Each calf
muscle actually is comprised of two muscles: the gastrocnemius, which
is the larger of the two muscles and gives the leg its diamond shape,
and the soleus, which is a smaller muscle that is found beneath the
gastrocnemius. At the bottom of the calf muscles, connective tissue
links the calf with the Achilles tendon. The calf muscles pull your heel
upwards when you walk or run so you can move forward.
Why Is Calf Muscle Strength Important?
Besides being crucial to simple forward motion, it turns out that leg
strength – and within this, calf strength - is directly linked to longevity.
In order to stay young and keep healthy you need to keep moving. You
need to keep your balance to avoid falls, and you need to be able to
move your legs fully in order to exercise effectively. If your calf muscles
are weak your overall leg strength is weak, and this can result in lower
life expectancy and higher risk of death from conditions like cancer and
Your calf muscles are only one part of the linked muscular system, of
course, but they are an important part. As we age, we all lose muscle
mass, about 3% to 5% for each decade after age 30. If we lose
enough muscle mass, and go beyond a tipping point, we are unable to
recover the muscle mass and we develop a condition characterized by
weakness and frailty known as "sarcopenia". One of the best measures
for whether you have lost too much muscle and have entered
sarcopenia is by measuring the thickness of your calf muscle, scientists
from Hacettepe University Medical School in Turkey discovered in 2016.
We looked at other reasons why your calf muscles need special
attention if you want to live longer and more healthily.
1. The Stronger Your Calf Muscles, the Lower Your Mortality Risk
Whether you are young or old, sick or well, the stronger your muscles
the lower your mortality risk, according to a 2008 study from the Unit
for Preventive Nutrition, Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.
The study, led by Dr. J.R. Ruiz, examined 8762 men between the ages
of 20 and 80 to determine how muscular strength affected their risk for
dying from all causes, from cardiovascular disease and from cancer.
After 18 years had passed, the scientists took a tally of how many men
had died and from which causes. What they discovered is that for every
33% increase in muscular strength from one man to another, that
deaths from all causes decreased by 28%. Similar drops were seen in
death rates from cardiovascular disease (drop of 23% to 26%) and
cancer 9drop of 28% to 32%).]
Even after adjusting for fitness and heart health, scientists believe that
calf strength and overall muscle strength are powerful indicators of
health and longevity.
2. Increasing Calf Muscle Protein Synthesis Leads to Better Health
A 2016 study from the University of Birmingham in the UK
demonstrates the importance of skeletal muscle strength for healthy
ageing – and your calf muscles are a key part of your overall muscle
Increasing calf muscle protein synthesis with exercise of protein-based
nutrition helps to maintain a strong and healthy muscle mass, “which in
turn leads to improved health, independence and functionality.”
3. Calf Muscle Strength, Not Mass, is Linked to Longevity
Don’t worry if your legs look a little puny. It doesn’t particularly matter
if your calf muscles are big or small – it’s the strength in these and
other muscles in the body that makes a difference.
A 2006 study from the University of Pittsburgh shows that “muscle
strength as a marker of muscle quality is more important than quantity
in estimating mortality risk”. The researchers looked at 2,292
participants in the Health, Aging and Body Composition (Health ABC)
Study and focused on leg and arm muscle mass and strength.
4. Increase Your Calf Strength to Run Faster and Exercise More
As you get older you run more slowly, experts agree, but if you
increase the strength of your calf and ankle flexor muscles you could
reverse this trend, according to a 2016 study from Wake Forest
University in Winston-Salem.
The researchers looked at 110 experienced runners aged between 23
and 59. They found that with each passing decade, the stride length
and speed of the runners decreased by 20 percent.
Runners aged over 40 had much less power in the muscles around the
ankle and in the calf, so researchers advise increasing strength and
flexibility in these muscles to build speed and avoid injury.
5. Strengthen the Calf Muscles to Protect Your Foot and Ankle
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons says that
strengthening the muscles like the calf that support your foot and ankle
will help relieve foot and ankle pain and keep your ankle joint stable. A
stable joint helps you stay active for longer.
They recommend strengthening the calf and foot muscles with
exercises such as the following:
6. If You Have High Blood Pressure, You Need Strong Calf Muscles
Scientists from the University of Granada in Spain in 2011 measured
calf muscle and leg strength in men with high blood pressure and found
that greater leg strength actually protected hypertensive men from the
risk of dying from cancer and other health conditions.
The strength of your calf and legs is important no matter whether you
take a lot of exercise or not, according to the researchers.
7. Weak Calf Muscles and Peripheral Arterial Disease are a Risky
Take care if you have peripheral arterial disease and you also have
weak calf muscles. A 2010 report from Northwestern University,
Chicago shows that the weaker the leg strength, the more likely men
are to die from peripheral arterial disease.
When you have peripheral artery disease or "PAD", the arteries of your
legs have become narrowed by buildup of cholesterol and plaques.
Blood circulation becomes impaired and walking without pain becomes
impossible. To avoid peripheral artery disease, you should maintain
healthy cholesterol levels and stay active throughout your life. This
Northwestern study also suggests that you take special care to maintain
adequate strength in your legs to avoid PAD. To build up leg strength,
aim to walk up at least one or two flights of stairs daily. You may also
want yo include a regular program of squats and calf raises three times
per week to build up overall leg strength.
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|Strong calf muscles decrease your
risk for dying from all causes.