Muscle tissue is a vital component of your ability to move and perform daily tasks. There are three types of muscles: smooth, cardiac and skeletal. Smooth muscles are mostly inactive and controlled by the nervous system. Cardiac muscle is found in the heart and enables blood circulation throughout the body. Skeletal muscle is responsible for movement and functionality, and this is the muscle type that is subjected to atrophy from a sedentary lifestyle.
Skeletal muscle is responsible for our mobility and daily actions. From running to walking to carrying grocery bags, your skeletal muscles provide the power to do these tasks. These muscles are enhanced by exercise and weight lifting -- activities that put pressure on the muscles. Consistent movement and activity maintain our skeletal muscles, so an inactive lifestyle conversely produces atrophy. Ann Pietrangelo of HealthLine.com notes that physical inactivity is the primary contributor to muscle atrophy.
Increased body fat will also contribute indirectly to muscle atrophy. Unneeded body fat causes weight gain, which can further preclude physical activity. Excess fat also hides any existing muscle that you may have, which gives your overall body a less toned appearance. Jordan Daley of ShapeSense.com confirms that people often have fat layers on top of their muscle that hides the contours of the muscle from sight.
You've heard the phrase "Unused muscle turns to fat," but this statement is untrue. Muscle and fat are separate tissues and cannot convert into the other. However, unused muscle can waste away. When exercise is eliminated from your lifestyle, the muscles are not being worked or stressed. Just as our bones need weight-bearing activities to keep them strong and prevent brittleness and osteoporosis, our muscles require activity to prevent deterioration. Exercise will not only help prevent atrophy, but can also increase muscle tone and size.
Signs and Solutions
You will know if your lifestyle is sedentary because you will not be engaged in regular physical activity. You may also notice that one of your legs or arms may be smaller than the other or that you are feeling weaker doing normal daily tasks. Activities that used to be easy may now become more difficult or impossible. A simple solution is to begin performing weight-bearing activities such as walking, cycling or jogging. These activities will decrease the rate of atrophy and help strengthen the existing muscles.
Sabrina Prieur is an expert on education, health, fitness, physical education and sports/athletics. She has a BS in health and physical education, a master's degree in education, and a PhD in leadership with a concentration in sports management and administration. A collegiate professor and athletics administrator, she's taught and coached various sports in the public schools and inner city.