You may already know that we lose muscle naturally as we age. We call that “sarcopenia.” The connections between your nerves and muscles start to deteriorate once you reach your mid-30s. From then on, it doesn’t get better. On average, adults begin losing 8% of their muscle per decade starting at age 40. This means, if you are in your 50s or 60s you have been experiencing decades of gradually worsening functional capability.
Women in particular are at several disadvantages when it comes to optimal muscle health. With age, their muscles deteriorate at a faster rate than men’s, explains Michael Bemben, an exercise physiologist and professor in the department of health and exercise science at the University of Oklahoma. The neurons that control muscles in both genders are programmed to die off with age. “Men typically have more muscle to begin with so they can afford to lose some, whereas women can’t,” he adds.
The good news is that we can do a great deal to counteract the effects of time and to keep ourselves in top form. Research has found that sarcopenia is due as much to lifestyle as sheer age. The attention we devote to building and maintaining muscles today will make a significant difference 20, 30 or 40 years down the road when it comes to carrying out even basic actions such as walking and bending.
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Naturally, muscle will gradually become more and more functionally limited. This reduction in muscle also increases the risk for associated problems such as adult-onset diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, and hypertension, as well as cardiovascular disease. So keeping yourself in top form will not only make you look good, but it is good for you too.
While we obviously cannot stop the aging of muscle, there are steps we can take early on to keep our muscle quality up.
- Create a mix of physical activity that comprises weight-bearing activities, cardiovascular fitness, and balance and flexibility training.
- Listen to your body and modify your activities accordingly.
- Build up the intensity of your workout slowly over time to minimize the chance of injury.
Above all, get active and stay active
One study showed gains in muscle strength and impressive changes in muscle fiber size, with increases of 20-30%, despite the participants having a mean age of 68 years. A recent review of studies in the journal Age and Ageing pinpoints building muscle and eating lots of protein as the best ways to fend off sarcopenia. The review compiled 13-years worth of published research on sarcopenia interventions in adults 50 and older, to help scientists get a better grasp on how to prevent and treat the disease.
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What actually happens when you exercise and why these changes are relatively age-independent is hardwired into our biology and includes the induction of a variety of synthetic pathways when muscle is exposed to resistance training and increased activity. These simply don’t turn off when we age, but remain ready to respond to at any time.
Body fat percentage is a great measure of fitness level, since it is the only body measurement which directly calculates a person’s relative body composition without regard to height or weight. The widely used body mass index (BMI) provides a measure that allows for an estimate of healthy weight of an individual based on their height. While BMI largely increases as adiposity increases, due to differences in body composition, other indicators of body fat give more accurate results.
We have reviewed a number of smart scales which can help you keep tabs on body fat. Or you can use a hand-held body fat monitor for more precise analysis on how you are progressing with your workouts.
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And don’t forget. Resistance exercise is the single best stimulator for maintaining muscle function, strength and size, whether you’re a young athlete, a pro athlete or an 80-year-old woman. By contracting your muscles, weight lifting signals to your body that the muscles need to recover and then rebuild to be bigger and stronger, to be prepared for future stressors. Spending time pumping weights in the gym and sipping on protein shakes may pay off in a big way as you age.