exercise bands and barbells

Losing Muscle Mass as You Age

I am pleased to share this guest post written by Jani H. Leuschel, MS, NDTR. She has spent many years working with individuals and groups as a personal trainer and fitness instructor. Her blog, Food Hall by Jani, serves up tasty, nutritious recipes to enhance wellbeing. Jani aims to keep recipes simple and frugal.

Jani has degrees in kinesiology, nutrition, communications, and English. She began her professional life as a copy editor and food writer while growing her fitness side hustle into a personal training business.

Losing muscle mass is a gradual process that begins in the third decade of life. Unless you are an athlete, you may not notice the slow decline until you have telltale signs of losing muscle mass such as poor grip strength and unsteady gait or difficult balance.

Sometime after we turn 30, we lose 3-8% per decade or about 0.4 lb per year. This diminishment of muscles is often called sarcopenia and can lead to frailty, increased risk of falls, and the inability to perform daily activities.

Sarcopenia, however, is not just a consequence of aging. Losing muscle mass can be a complex condition influenced by hormones, inflammation, nutrition, and of course, physical activity.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT LOSING MUSCLE MASS

No one wants to worry about losing the ability to manage basic personal tasks like bathing, dressing, and walking. In extreme cases, loss of muscle mass can lead to poor daily function and eventually, the loss of independence.

These are the outward/concrete results of sarcopenia or muscle wasting. Simultaneously, inside the body, many inflammatory processes are occurring, such as loss of bone mass and downregulation of metabolism.

When muscle loss is accompanied by fat gain –as it often is – inflammatory processes kick into high gear. The result is insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, as well as heart disease and vascular damage.

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE METABOLIC EFFECTS OF LOSING MUSCLE MASS

As we age, metabolism drops by about 10% due to losing muscle mass. This translates into a reduction in the body’s need for energy. Calorie-burning capacity is lowered.

This drop in energy requirements is influenced by a decline in the volume and activity of mitochondria, the energy factories of your body’s cells. Your muscle cells are less able to store and use high energy phosphate compounds like ATP (adenosine triphosphate) and creatine phosphate, which are important for endurance exercise and for powerful activities that require bursts of energy.

Sluggish metabolism is directly related to low muscle mass. Lean tissue burns more calories than fat mass. Less muscle means less need for calories even if you are obese or overweight. This makes it very easy to put on fat mass as the years go by. The role that lean body mass plays in healthy metabolism is why you need to maintain and even, increase, your muscles.

IS IT POSSIBLE TO AVOID LOSING MUSCLE MASS AS YOU AGE?

The short answer is “yes.” A research effort that examined 49 studies and included 1328 men and women with a mean age of 50 found that a gain of 2.4 pounds of muscle is possible as you age if you pursue resistance exercise, aka strength training.

girl exercising
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The authors of this study did mention that the oldest individuals had more trouble with hypertrophy, the enlargement of muscles. The age range was 50 to 83 but most subjects were between the ages of 60 and 75.

They also noted that those who had a higher volume of training got better results.

There is truth in the old saying, “Use it or lose it.” An inactive or sedentary lifestyle will cause loss of muscle mass without regard to age.

Anyone on bed rest will experience atrophy. A young, healthy adult might lose 2% of their muscle mass in about a month, while a healthy older person can lose 10% in just 10 days. An infirm elderly person confined to a hospital bed may lose 10% of their mass in just 3 days!

Astronauts – healthy individuals in the prime of their life – spend 2.5 hours each day exercising in space to hang onto as much of their lean body mass as possible. They utilize resistance exercise so they can avoid losing large amounts of muscle tissue in the weightless environment of space.

BENEFITS OF RETAINING LEAN BODY MASS

Reductions in blood sugar

You’ll gain more than muscle by building and preserving your lean tissue. One study of resistance training in type 2 diabetics showed better glycemic control with increases in lean body mass.

Participants who engaged in strength training were able to lower their HbA1c, a measure of average blood sugar over a three-month period.

Study subjects who engaged in both aerobic exercise and strength training had the largest drop in their HbA1c. Researchers said that this group spent more total time exercising and this may have contributed to their positive results.

Less inflammation

Another study that examined the effects of a year of resistance training in subjects with type 2 diabetes found that inflammation was reduced by a whole-body strength program. Levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of systemic inflammation, were lowered in response to increases in muscle. (Inflammation is a hallmark of type 2 diabetes.)

Lowered insulin resistance

Until recently, it was thought that people with type 2 diabetes could not build muscles because their cells are resistant to insulin. It turns out, though, that the muscular contractions necessary to build lean tissue and the resulting improvements in body composition (decreased fat mass and improved lean mass) enhance insulin sensitivity.

Even without weight loss or changes in BMI, research subjects in both studies had favorable outcomes when they increased their muscle mass.

Appetite control, increased energy usage

A contracting muscle does more than get stronger and bigger. According to recent research on the metabolic effects of exercise, contracting muscles release anti-inflammatory myokines into circulation that help with appetite control and increase the body’s energy usage. (This is in addition to improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing systemic inflammation.)

Exercise helps in these ways and with mood improvement so that you can find happiness and peace in your day.

For nutritious recipes and wellness tips, read Jani’s blog, Food Hall by Jani.

*NOTE: Always consult your doctor or health care provider before beginning an exercise program.

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