Food & Fitness After 50: The Strong Live Long

This post was written by Dr. Bob Murray, co-author of Food & Fitness After 50.

Maintaining muscle strength is a critical factor in ensuring a long healthspan—being as healthy as possible for as long as possible—and in ensuring that we can do so independently.  Fending for oneself is an important psychological component of successful aging.  That’s not to say that we don’t all need to be looked after periodically throughout our lives—illness, injuries, and surgeries being obvious examples of when it is both nice and often essential to temporarily relinquish our independence and allow others to care for us.  But to be dependent on others to help us accomplish the daily demands of living—opening jars, carrying groceries, rising from a chair, climbing stairs—is a scenario most people would like to avoid.

1253414  Muscle weakness with age is often, but not always, accompanied by sarcopenia—a severe loss of muscle mass and muscle function—often referred to in older adults as frailty.  The perils of sarcopenia are not surprising: higher risk of falls, faster functional decline, more bone fractures of all types, greater chance of hospitalization, longer hospital stays, and higher death rate.  It is estimated that about one-quarter to one-third of those over age 70 are sarcopenic and it is likely that even more are dynapenic—muscular weakness with or without sarcopenia.

We will all gradually lose muscle mass and strength as we age, but we can control the rate at which we lose it.  In simple terms, inactivity and a poor diet accelerate the aging of muscle while regular exercise and a good diet remain the best ways to keep our muscles young.  To that end, any kind of physical activity is better than no physical activity, but the best results come from a combination of aerobic exercise and strength training.  The current recommendations are to engage in at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity (walking, biking, swimming, etc.) each week, along with two sessions of strength-training exercise.

Regular physical activity preserves strength and function by stimulating not only the muscles involved in exercise, but also the nerves responsible for muscle contractions.  In addition, active muscles release compounds called myokines that travel in the bloodstream and positively affect cells throughout the body.  Also, fit muscle cells recover more quickly from injury and surgery, additional benefits to staying active.

Bob2   Added good news is that we do not have to devote hours each week to strength training.  Preserving and even increasing muscle strength can be accomplished with short bouts of exercises that are continued to fatigue.  For example, doing a combination of push-ups, tricep extensions with weights, and chair dips will quickly exhaust the shoulder, chest, and arm muscles involved in elbow extension, adding strength and protecting muscle mass.  Doing similar combinations of movements with other muscle groups will reap the same results.  As with all exercise, the best results come from getting our muscles out of their comfort zone on a regular basis.

When it comes to diet, studies show that older adults who increase their daily protein intake can better support improvements in strength and muscle mass.  The simplest way to accomplish increased protein intake is to consume more protein at breakfast, the meal that often has the least amount of protein.  Consuming 30 to 40 grams of protein at each meal will give most of us the recommended amount of protein. (For ideas on how to eat about 30 grams of protein per meal, check this out.)

Use it or lose it is the operative explanation for age-related changes in muscle strength and mass, as well as for most every other body function that we’d like to preserve as we grow older.  For older adults just getting started with strength exercises, the U.S. National Institute on Aging has examples of activities that can easily be accomplished at home (click here for a link to strength exercises.) YMCAs, fitness centers, and various internet sites (click here for one internet site with many at-home workout videos.)

Chapter 6 of Food & Fitness After 50 is devoted to gaining and maintaining muscle and strength, and chapter 2 has all sorts of tips for how to eat for optimal aging.  Aging is inevitable, but we can exercise control over the rate at which we age.  We just have to do it.

 

Food & Fitness After 50: Sam’s Story: Here’s to a Long Healthspan

Sam bike ridingThis post was written by Dr. Bob Murray, co-author of Food & Fitness After 50.

When he was 61, Sam’s right leg collapsed as he was getting out of bed, the result of a long-ago knee injury from playing lacrosse, damage (torn meniscus cartilage) that happened two months before he graduated from West Point in 1971.  His compromised joint is now supported by a knee brace that allows Sam to be physically active.  Sam wrestled and played golf and baseball in high school and remained physically active during his college years at West Point.  Meals at the Academy were high in calories and consumed quickly, laying the foundation for rapid weight gain after college when Sam’s career as an aerospace engineer entailed much more sedentary time, lots of travel and restaurant meals, and a frequently disrupted routine for exercise and eating.  His love of sweets hasn’t helped matters; Sam says he has Bob bike 1been at least 10 to 20 pounds overweight for most of his adult life.

Sam’s story is typical of so many older adults whose busy family and professional lives—along with injuries or health setbacks of one sort or another—made it difficult to maintain a healthy balance of food and fitness.  Such is modern life.  Now retired and in his late 60s, Sam now has the opportunity to find the right balance.  “I want to be consistent with my calorie intake each day,” Sam said, “I want to eat a healthy breakfast, reduce eating out, drink more water, and lose fat weight.  These are important goals for me because I want to live longer than age 87 that my annuity says is my life expectancy.”

Bicycling is Sam’s primary form of exercise and he also stays active doing yard work and repairs on rental properties.  He credits his wife Elizabeth for being a great role model who cooks healthy meals, joins him on bike rides, and watches her calorie intake.  High blood pressure runs in Sam’s family but he has been able to keep his BP well within the normal range by biking more often, eating healthier, and staying well hydrated.  Sam has found that increasing his daily water intake has helped curb his appetite and keep him energized, especially important in the warm weather he experiences living in San Antonio.

Sam understands what he has to do to achieve his goals and is committed to staying the course.  That commitment does not mean that he has to follow a stringent diet or exercise to exhaustion every day.  Living a long healthspan—a term that reflects the importance of being as healthy as possible for as long as possible—includes enjoying what life has to offer … in moderation, of course.  According to much scientific research, Sam is on the right track.  For example, scientists from Harvard University recently estimated that a low-risk lifestyle (never smoking, a healthy weight, regular physical activity, a healthy diet, and moderate alcohol consumption) could considerably prolong life expectancy (longer than 10 years) compared with individuals who followed none of the low-risk lifestyle factors.

Sam’s main advice to others who want to strike a better balance between food and fitness is twofold: 1) count calories—Sam uses a phone app called FatSecret to help keep him from overdoing it, and 2) read Food & Fitness After 50 because Sam considers the book to be a great guide for pointing out errors and helping motivate him to achieve his goals.

(We appreciate Sam’s unsolicited compliments and are happy to hear that he found our book helpful.)