Recovery from muscle weakness by exercise and FES: lessons from Masters, active or sedentary seniors and SCI patients

Aging Clin Exp Res. 2017 Aug;29(4):579-590. doi: 10.1007/s40520-016-0619-1. Epub 2016 Sep 3.


Many factors contribute to the decline of skeletal muscle that occurs as we age. This is a reality that we may combat, but not prevent because it is written into our genome. The series of records from World Master Athletes reveals that skeletal muscle power begins to decline at the age of 30 years and continues, almost linearly, to zero at the age of 110 years. Here we discuss evidence that denervation contributes to the atrophy and slowness of aged muscle. We compared muscle from lifelong active seniors to that of sedentary elderly people and found that the sportsmen have more muscle bulk and slow fiber type groupings, providing evidence that physical activity maintains slow motoneurons which reinnervate muscle fibers. Further, accelerated muscle atrophy/degeneration occurs with irreversible Conus and Cauda Equina syndrome, a spinal cord injury in which the human leg muscles may be permanently disconnected from the nervous system with complete loss of muscle fibers within 5-8 years. We used histological morphometry and Muscle Color Computed Tomography to evaluate muscle from these peculiar persons and reveal that contraction produced by home-based Functional Electrical Stimulation (h-bFES) recovers muscle size and function which is reversed if h-bFES is discontinued. FES also reverses muscle atrophy in sedentary seniors and modulates mitochondria in horse muscles. All together these observations indicate that FES modifies muscle fibers by increasing contractions per day. Thus, FES should be considered in critical care units, rehabilitation centers and nursing facilities when patients are unable or reluctant to exercise.

Keywords: Aging; Denervation and type grouping; FES recovery; Master Athletes; Muscle; Muscle Color Computed Tomography.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Cauda Equina / injuries
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Electric Stimulation Therapy*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Horses
  • Humans
  • Muscle Fibers, Skeletal / pathology
  • Muscle Weakness / rehabilitation*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / innervation
  • Muscle, Skeletal / pathology
  • Muscular Atrophy / rehabilitation
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / rehabilitation*