As people get older, it’s common to experience a decrease in muscle mass and strength. The progressive loss of skeletal muscle mass is known as sarcopenia and affects 30% of individuals over age 60 and 50% of individuals over age 80. Decreased muscle mass can make it difficult to do everyday tasks such as household chores, personal care, and leisure activities. While sarcopenia is quite common, engaging in proper lifestyle choices like regular strength-training exercise and a protein-rich diet can allow older adults to maintain muscle mass for longer and avoid the onset of muscle loss.
Sarcopenia is defined as the decline of skeletal muscle tissue with age and refers to both the loss of muscle mass and the loss of muscle function or strength. One of the major risk factors for sarcopenia is a lack of physical activity. Studies have shown that physical inactivity puts people at a higher risk of developing sarcopenia and that older adults who do engage in physical activity have higher levels of muscle mass and strength. However, a large number of older adults are sedentary, which is why sarcopenia is so widespread and such a large problem.
Some decrease in muscle mass is a normal part of the aging process, but a lack of physical activity majorly exacerbates this loss. It’s estimated that people who are physically inactive lose between 3-8% of their muscle mass per decade after age 30, and even more after age 60. Decreased muscle mass causes older adults to be weaker, more frail, and have decreased mobility. It makes it more difficult to perform everyday tasks, and also increases the risk of falls and injury. This can eventually cause older adults to become too weak to care for themselves, which leads to a total loss of independence.
Another potential cause of sarcopenia and muscle loss is a decline in the production of certain hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone. These hormones contribute to muscle growth, and their levels decline with age. While these hormone decreases do lead to less muscle mass, it’s possible to reduce the effects of sarcopenia with proper lifestyle choices. Older adults should ensure they exercise regularly, especially with weights, and eat a diet rich in protein. This can help build and maintain muscle mass, even in old age.
The best and most effective way to prevent the onset of sarcopenia is with physical activity. Resistance training and weight training are especially valuable, as they have been shown to be the best ways to build and maintain muscle. These types of training help to build muscle mass and strength, as well as strengthen bones which helps prevent conditions such as osteoporosis. By strengthening muscles and bones, this helps older adults stay strong, prevent falls, and maintain their functional independence for longer.
The World Health Organization recommends that during a week, older adults should do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. They also recommend that muscle-strengthening activities be done on 2 or more days per week. Marcus Bamman, a professor at the University of Alabama, did a study on the effectiveness of different exercise routines for strengthening the muscles of older adults. He concluded that the best option was three workouts per week, with the intensity levels being high-intensity, low-intensity, and high-intensity, in that order. He found that two high-intensity workouts per week were also very effective, but that the extra low-intensity workout in the middle provided added benefits.
Bamman’s study defined high-intensity workouts as having three sets of 8 to 12 repetitions to failure for 10 different upper- and lower-body exercises. Low-intensity workouts, on the other hand, were three sets of 12 repetitions of the same exercises, but the weights were only two-thirds as heavy as the high-intensity days. Another part of Bamman’s study was ensuring that the participants got enough protein. This is extremely important, as protein helps build muscle growth, but older adults need more protein as their muscles are less sensitive to its effects.
Protein is made up of amino acids, which the body uses to facilitate the growth and repair of muscle tissue. One specific amino acid, leucine, is found in protein-rich foods and is responsible for building muscle. Protein is an essential part of building muscle mass and strength, so it’s important for older adults to ensure they’re getting enough. Muscles become less sensitive to protein’s effects with age, so older adults need more protein than younger people do. Carol Greenwood, a specialist at the University of Toronto, recommends that adults over 70 get 1 gram of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day. For someone who weighs 68 kg or 150 pounds, this would mean a recommended daily intake of 68 grams of protein.
The best way for older adults to ensure they get enough protein is to eat animal products, legumes and nuts. These foods are rich in protein and provide all the essential amino acids that the body needs. Sources of animal proteins include foods like meat, eggs, and dairy products like milk and cheese. When choosing meat, it’s a good idea to avoid red meat and instead choose foods like lean poultry or fish. Red meat like beef or pork contains unhealthy saturated fats, so these types of meat should be consumed in moderation. Protein-rich legumes include foods like beans, lentils, and chickpeas, which are all very healthy. Nuts like almonds and walnuts are also great sources of protein. Eating a balanced diet filled with these foods is a great way for older adults to ensure they’re getting enough protein to build and maintain their muscles.
While many people think that the loss of muscle mass is inevitable with age, the effects caused by sarcopenia are avoidable and can be prevented with proper lifestyle choices. The current problem is that many older adults are sedentary and don’t engage in any physical activity, which leaves them vulnerable to falls and injury. A proper diet and exercise routine can go a long way when it comes to maintaining a healthy body and functional strength along with it. By avoiding sarcopenia and muscle loss, older adults can maintain their independence and live longer and healthier.
Katie is a member of Welbi’s Customer Experience team! She has a background in communications and recreation and is passionate about older adults, exercise, coffee and people.
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