Age-Related Muscle Loss: How Not to Let Muscle Mass Go to Waste

The amount of muscle tissue we have begins to shrink as early as age 35. The loss of muscle mass escalates after 50, reaching up to 8% each year between 50 to 70. Less muscle also means less strength. Part of the reason is that our nerves that initiate movement stop communicating as efficiently with our musculoskeletal system. Another piece involves the amount and type of muscle cells or fibers.

Key takeaways:
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    Loss of muscle mass begins as early as age 35.
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    The rate of decline in muscle size and strength doubles after age 60.
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    Health experts recommend two days of strength training per week.

Skeletal muscle is the type that produces the shape and size of muscle in our bodies. The fibers responsible for muscle bulk and power are constantly changing and are not as plentiful in older people.

Staying active

A host of experts including the CDC promote regular exercise for optimal health. As a general intervention, a minimum of 75 minutes per week of moderate activity like brisk walking is advised for adults, plus two days of muscle strengthening. Current evidence shows that only about 15% of older people meet this suggested level of physical activity.

Sarcopenia and dynapenia are the respective medical terms for age-related loss of muscle mass and power. These conditions are not inevitable with aging, but they do put older adults at higher risk for injury. Maintaining what power we do have as well as building new strengths are key to injury prevention later in life. That is why strength training – particularly in the form of resistance training - is endorsed by health and fitness professionals.

Resistance builds muscle

There are many ways to build our muscles through physical activity. Working around the house may fulfill the strengthening requirement, depending on what we do. Vigorous yard work that involves shoveling or raking might count, or lifting boxes in the garage. But it’s unlikely we do this two days a week every week. So, what types of planned activities might suffice?

  • Exercising with hand or ankle weights plus resistance bands.
  • Using weight machines at a gym under the guidance of a personal trainer.
  • Yoga postures that require holding up your body weight.

Resistance means we are applying an opposing force against our muscles and bones. This stress stimulates both to grow and strengthening. It takes time and commitment to get into the habit of working our bodies in this way, but it helps secure our functional abilities over time. A few tips for getting started from the American College of Sport Science:

  • Begin at two to three days per week.
  • Perform eight to10 multi-joint exercises that stress the major muscle groups (e.g., arms, legs, back).
  • Perform two to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions with good form (ask a fitness expert for help).
  • Lift and lower the weight in a controlled manner (two seconds each up and down).
  • Progress weight lifted over time so that it feels like and eight out of 10 difficulty (10 being the hardest you can give).

Find power in protein

Protein is a macronutrient and the building block for our muscles. The type and amount of protein we consume may change later in life depending on our appetite and taste. Despite any alterations in preferences, it is important to know that protein is not only required for basic health but also to slow muscle loss in its tracks!

Eating protein in whole foods is best. This means getting protein in its original form instead of powders or bars. Shakes and supplements can be great on the go but planning meals with varied protein options are best. Experts suggest that for older adults in good health, the daily goal for protein intake should be 1.0 to 1.2 grams/kilogram of body weight. In a 68-kilogram or 150-pound person, this is about 75 grams per day, divided between meals and snacks. To help put this in perspective:

  • One ounce of chicken is seven grams of protein
  • Four ounces of beans is eight grams
  • A five ounce Greek yogurt is 12 to 18 grams

Our muscles allow us to move in purposeful ways as well as work hard when life requires it. Learning how to improve our muscular health as we age is vital but shouldn’t be started without advice. Check with your healthcare provider or a fitness professional before beginning any new training or dietary program. For safety and best results, it is recommended you have a plan that is personalized to your specific needs and includes nutritional advice.


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