Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management
Loss of muscle is common among men and women as they age. It’s so common, in fact, that people often just expect the process to happen as they age. If you are in your 50’s, 60’s or older, you’re probably not interested in competing with 20 and 30-year olds. Most people would prefer quality of life over simply quantity of life. Fortunately, the right lifestyle choices can have a significant effect on how great the quality of your life is as you enter the second half of our lifespan.
Aging and Muscle Loss
Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle tissue due to aging. It can start as early as the mid-20’s, but typically begins in the 40s or 50s.[i] There is not a single cause of sarcopenia. Muscle loss can occur from a lack of activity, hormonal imbalances (especially low testosterone), injuries, poor nutrition habits and a number of other reasons. The rate at which people lose muscle can be significantly slowed through proper nutrition and lifestyle habits. However, those with poor nutrition and lifestyle habits may face not only sarcopenia, but the frailty syndrome, which is the combination of sarcopenia, osteoporosis and muscle weakness.[ii]
Aging and Resistance Training
Resistance training is one of the most proven means of maintaining muscle, bone density, strength, stamina, and coordination throughout the aging process. The more muscle you have when the process of sarcopenia begins, the more muscle you will have decades later. Type II muscle fibers, which are used for strength and power, are especially affected by sarcopenia. Even if you’re past your fifth decade and you have not done much strength training, there is still hope. Studies have shown those who have not done resistance training in the past and begin a strength training program later in life can still build muscle tissue, even once the process of sarcopenia has begun.
Knowing resistance training is important is one thing, doing it is another. To maintain muscle as people age, resistance training must be done at least 2-3 times every week. Fortunately, lifting maximal weight is not necessary. In fact, research shows lower weights with higher reps could be more beneficial than higher weights and fewer reps for older adults.
To be more specific, sets should be done with 30-50% of one rep max to failure. That means 30-50% of the heaviest weight you can do for an exercise one time. For example, if your maximum weight for barbell squats is 185 pounds, 60-90 pounds would be ideal. Using these lower loads, you could likely do 10-20 repetitions before achieving a point of muscle failure. Muscle failure is beyond the point where it gets difficult and muscles burn, it’s the point where you truly can’t do another repetition. Three to four sets per exercise should be sufficient. You’ll need to do about 6-10 different exercises in a training session to hit all the major muscle groups.
If you are in the age group we’re talking about, and are nervous about starting a resistance training program with free weights, cables and many of the tools found in fitness centers today, you can relax. Many of the benefits from resistance training can come from simple machine based movements, at least in the beginning of your program. Machines are a great way to take away the need for balance and coordination, and instead focus attention on stressing the muscular system. Without a strong muscular system, it will be difficult to improve agility, balance and coordination. I can’t stress it enough – if you’re not familiar with proper exercise technique, get help from a certified fitness professional.
Aging and Protein Consumption
Muscle is protein, and we need protein in our diet to build muscle in our bodies. Protein breaks down into amino acid. Essential amino acids are a group of amino acids that must come from food because our bodies cannot make them on their own. Animal protein sources are the most efficient way to consume essential amino acids. I know some people are still told that too much protein depletes minerals from bone, but that is not the case. You can read more about it in Myth Busting: Protein.
Each day we break down and build up protein. Ideally, we finish each day building more protein than we break down. As we age, we require more protein to maintain or build muscle tissue. Some research suggests our protein needs are doubled in later years.i Rather than gorging on protein at the end of the day, eat some protein with each meal. With an increased focus on protein, it’s also important to eat plenty of vegetables, which add fiber, and vitamins. Vegetables also provide minerals which are necessary for maintaining a proper acid-base balance.
Though it was not discussed on the referenced papers, it’s also well-known that as people age, their production of hydrochloric acid (HCL) is reduced. Without sufficient HCL, the body cannot break down protein from the diet. It’s possible that some of the increased needs in aging adults come from their reduced ability to digest protein. Fortunately, it’s easy to supplement with additional HCL if it is an issue.
Other Factors Affecting Muscle Loss
Even with sufficient protein intake and a well-designed resistance training program, there still seems to be an age-related reduction in protein synthesis. As Breen and Phillips explain, “Given the detrimental effects of acute and chronic inflammation on skeletal muscle mass and protein metabolism, age-associated inflammation may affect the anabolic sensitivity of older muscles.”i One of the thoughts is chronic inflammation, which is also related to degenerative diseases, insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease (all common with aging), changes the way amino acids stimulate muscles to build instead of break down. It is an interesting hypothesis, which would suggest another reason why it’s critical to reduce inflammation in our body.
Omega-3 consumption and supplementation may also counter some of the process of age-related muscle loss. When used along with sufficient protein intake and resistance training, omega-3 supplementation seems to enhance the effects on protein synthesis.i It’s also possible the inflammation-reducing properties of omega-3 fatty acids play a role. Interestingly, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) have been shown to help in muscle protein synthesis in older populations, although they probably shouldn’t be used long-term. The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and NSAIDs seem to reinforce the notion that reduced inflammation is important for protein synthesis.i
Sarcopenia is more than losing a little muscle during aging. Fortunately, the process can be slowed significantly with the right diet and lifestyle habits. If you’re ready to take your future health seriously, you can read more of the articles on this site, but I’d also suggest connecting with an experienced fitness professional and a holistic-minded registered dietitian. Some easy things you can work on with them include:
- Starting a strength training program that targets maintenance of lean body mass (along with enhancing bone density), and eventually working on agility, balance and coordination.
- Setting you up with appropriate lab tests and assessments. Each year you should be rechecking levels of hormones (testosterone, estrogen, thyroid, etc.), markers of inflammation, lipid profiles, vitamin D, etc.
- Helping you with your nutrition requirements such as getting sufficient protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals
Too often people wake up one day, take a good look at themselves and say “how did my body get like this?” It happens to almost everyone who puts their health and fitness low on their priority list. Our quality of life in our later years is determined in large part by how we feel, function and perform. Food, exercise, smart supplementation and good lifestyle choices all affect those three things, which means they all affect your quality of life.
Share thoughts and questions below.
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.
[i] Janssen I. Evolution of sarcopenia research. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2010;35:707-712