If you’re over the age of 30, more than likely you have already been experiencing significant muscle loss. Sarcopenia or the progressive loss of muscle mass due to aging is a common and natural occurrence. According to Harvard University, people begin to lose as much as 3 to 5 percent of muscle per decade after age 30. As a result, muscles become weaker, stamina decreases and activity level is reduced. Sarcopenia is also associated with decreased physical function, falls, fractures, disability, hospitalization and poor quality of life. There is not one definitive culprit behind age-related muscle loss. Instead, research has found several factors that may lead to sarcopenia, including inflammation, age-related molecular changes, declines in activity and nutritional intake, hormonal change and changes in motor neurons.
Although aging and age-related changes in how the body functions are inevitable, older people can still protect and build muscle. Lifestyle contributions to sarcopenia, such as activity decline and poor nutrition, can be altered at almost any age. In addition to helping maintain general health, a proper diet and consistent physical activity help older adults stay strong and capable of doing daily activities like personal care, household chores, and cooking. These everyday activities are crucial to maintaining independence longer in life.
Get in the kitchen
There’s an old fitness adage, “Abs are made in the kitchen,” that explains the importance of nutrition on maintaining and building muscle. Even if you are not in pursuit of six-pack abdominal muscles and a washboard stomach, a diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and protein is still vital. Protein is an important building block for muscle and insufficient intake can be detrimental. The most common intake standard is the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). Adults should take in 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight per day. For example, a 140-pound person should have about 50 grams of protein each day. It’s estimated that 30-40 percent of women and 20-40 percent of men over 50 do not intake the recommended amount of protein. A 2018 study that followed seniors over a 23-year span found that those who ate more protein were more likely to maintain physical function as they age. To help maintain function and build muscle, add more protein-rich foods to your diet. There are several healthy plant-based options that are low in fat and cholesterol such as legumes, whole grains, and nuts. If you choose to get your protein from animal products, opt for healthier choices such as fish and poultry. Whenever you can, limit red meat and cheese and avoid processed meats such as bacon and cold cuts.
People who are less physically active have a greater chance of developing sarcopenia. For adults age 65 and older that are generally fit and have no limiting health conditions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend two types of exercise. The CDC’s guidelines call for seniors to regularly partake in aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. Aerobic exercise, also called cardio, works to strengthen the cardiovascular system and the lungs. It can include a number of activities such as walking and bicycling to dancing and mowing the lawn. However, muscle-strengthening exercises help maintain and build muscle. These repetitive movements help older people retain muscle tone and strength. This type of exercise includes activities such as lifting weights, yoga, working with resistance bands, push-ups and digging in the garden.
The CDC’s guidelines give older people the option of modifying the amounts and intensity of their weekly exercise recommendations. The agency suggests at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, every week combined with two or more days a week of muscle-strengthening activities that work all the major muscle groups. A second option recommends 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, such as running, combined with two or more days a week of muscle-strengthening activities that work all the major muscle groups. The National Institute on Aging recommends doing muscle-strengthening exercises for 30-minute sessions each, but not to exercise the same muscle group 2 days in a row.
If you are concerned about muscle loss, consult your healthcare provider before beginning any diet or exercise program. They can evaluate you and determine if you are suffering from the effects of sarcopenia. Currently, there are no medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat sarcopenia. Your healthcare provider may recommend other treatment options, such as hormone therapy to increase muscle mass. However, researchers are still studying the benefits and drawbacks of treating sarcopenia with hormones. Even if you choose hormone therapy, a proper diet and physical activity are still beneficial at any age. Studies have found that “even the oldest and frailest nursing home residents have demonstrated significant functional improvement through a combination of nutrition and resistance exercise.”