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.
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.
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.