How to battle age-related muscle loss as we grow older?
One of the realities of life is that we grow older and by our early 30s, as a natural part of aging, we start to lose muscle mass. It is called sarcopenia and your muscle mass decreases approximately 3–8% per decade after the age of 30. This rate of decline is even higher after the age of 60. The news gets even more grim - sarcopenia is also accompanied by a progressive increase in fat mass leading to changes in body composition and is associated with an increased incidence of insulin resistance in the elderly. This involuntary loss of muscle mass, strength, and function is a fundamental contributor to disability in older people. It increases the risks of falls, vulnerability to injury and, consequently, can lead to functional dependence and disability.
Young and active Old and sedentary
Main causes of Sarcopenia
Physical inactivity – a sedentary lifestyle (currently aggravated by the Covid 19 pandemic) contributes to the development of sarcopenia. It is well known that short-term muscle inactivity severely reduces muscle mass and strength (even in young individuals!).
Poor nutrition choices - lead to muscle wasting. Aging is associated with a progressive reduction in food intake (for some 😊), which predisposes to energy-protein malnutrition. Furthermore, our societal behavior has led to overconsumption of highly processed foods with poor nutritional value.
Endocrine changes – a variety of hormonal changes during the aging process contribute to muscle loss with aging.
What can we do to counter Sarcopenia?
As mentioned above, sarcopenia is a multifactorial process. Physical inactivity, inadequate nutrition, and a reduction in endocrine (hormonal) function, all play an important role in the loss of muscle mass as we age. But there is good news too. We can fight sarcopenia.
Hormone replacement therapy to tackle the endocrine function is not really something we can do ourselves, but what we can do is to regulate our physical activity and optimise our nutrition. And they both have significant effects on building muscle mass and strength.
It takes some dedication and discipline, but it is never too late to rebuild muscle and maintain it. When it comes to exercise, the best means to build muscle mass, no matter your age, is (progressive) resistance training (aka “strength training”) in which you gradually ramp up your workout volume—weight, reps, sets and tempo —as your strength and endurance improve. An important factor here is that you periodically (every 3-4 weeks) need switching up the exercises to give yourself and your muscles a new challenge.
This constant challenging builds and develops your muscles and keeps you away from plateaus where you stop making progress.
It is of critical importance to have a plan that is tailored to your current abilities and needs. A full body workout includes the following exercise selection: squatting, bending, single leg, upper body pushing, upper body pulling and core exercises. Additionally, you need to incorporate some aerobic exercise. It’s all about finding that right balance , you can’t do too much, and you can’t do too little.
Strength training has other health benefits too. It helps reducing insulin resistance (an early indicator of the development of type 2 diabetes) and is beneficial to counter osteoporosis (porous bones), both of which are more prevalent as we grow older.
The right nutrition plays a critical role in (re-)building muscle mass. A good combination of lean proteins, fresh vegetables and healthy fats can do wonders for your body!
Protein intake is key for maintaining and building muscle. Our body breaks down proteins into amino acids (the building blocks for our muscles) but older individuals often experience a phenomenon called “anabolic resistance”, which lowers their bodies' ability to break down and synthesize protein. Therefore, as you get older, you need a bit more. A daily intake of around 1 to 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for older adults who do resistance training is recommended. But keep in mind that solely increasing your protein intake without doing strength training will not have any effect on rebuilding muscle mass. You need to do both.
This may seem like a high amount of protein compared with the average diet, but there are many ways to get the extra protein you need. Animal sources (meat, eggs, and dairy) are considered the best, as they provide the proper ratios of all the essential amino acids. You want to stay away from red and processed meat because of high levels of saturated fat and additives. Instead, opt for healthier choices, such as lean chicken, turkey, or salmon.
Aging is a natural process, and we must accept that as we grow older certain things are changing. We can slow down the aging and counter muscle and strength loss by practicing proper diet and regular physical activity. It is never too late to start, but it is better to start earlier than later.