It doesn’t take a genius to figure out we lose muscle naturally as we age. The medical name for that is “sarcopenia.” The connections between your nerves and muscles starts to deteriorate once you reach your mid-30s. From then on, unless you do something about it, it typically doesn’t get any better.
On average, adults begin losing 8% of their muscle per decade starting at age 40. This means, by the time 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.”
The good news is that you can do a great deal to counteract the effects of time and to keep yourself in top form. Research has found that sarcopenia is due as much to lifestyle as sheer age. A recent study has shown that exercise can make your cells biologically younger and telomeres in your white blood cells longer. It changes how cells in the body communicate with one another, as well as how rapidly they age.
Then there is this study. It gathered 21 of the elderly athletic men, 10 runners and cyclists in their 20s, and another 10 healthy but non-athletic elderly men. Researchers measured all of the men’s thighs and took blood and muscle-tissue samples. To cut a long story short, the study found that long-term exercise may help aging muscles in part by training them to dissipate age-related inflammation. At a cellular level, elderly athletic men’s muscles resemble those of 25-year-olds .
Naturally, muscle will gradually become more and more functionally limited. This reduction 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 your health as well. 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.
While you obviously cannot totally stop the natural aging of muscles, not yet at least…(but never say never), there are steps you can take early on to keep your 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 workouts slowly over time to minimize the chance of injury.
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.
By contracting your muscles, weightlifting signals to your body that the muscles need to recover and then rebuild to be bigger and stronger in order 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.
Another study tested the effects of weightlifting and high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and found that while weightlifting was most effective at building muscle strength, only high-intensity training changed participants’ muscles at the cellular level. This is a type of physical training that involves a series of high intensity exercise workouts interspersed with rest or relief periods. Or even more simply put, you run, cycle or row fast for a bit, then slow down for a bit.
“If people have to pick one exercise, I would recommend high-intensity interval training,” says study author Sreekumaran Nair, M.D.
“But I think it would be more beneficial if they could do three to four days of interval training and then a couple days of strength training.”
With the help of running watches and activity trackers, it is now easier than ever to integrate interval training into your fitness routine. For those that don’t want to fork out for a fully fledged running watch, even some run-of-the mill activity trackers have started to include this functionality as part of their feature-set.
Essential reading: Torch fat quickly with interval training – a beginners guide
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 along with resting heart rate and heart rate variability 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. There are also lots of wearables which can help you to keep on top of your fitness or count those reps and sets when you hit the gym.
Essential reading: The best wearables for hitting the gym
And don’t forget. Resistance exercise and high intensity interval training are the best stimulators for maintaining muscle function, strength and size. Whether you’re a young athlete, a pro athlete or an 80-year-old woman, its never too late to start.
Above all, get active and stay active!
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