How to Prevent Age Related muscle Loss

Many things change as we age. Physiologically there are changes to our nervous system, our cardiovascular system, our respiratory system, to our bones, joints and muscles. Although we cannot stop the ageing process we can slow it down, and we can make our journey into old age more acceptable; we can try and maintain our independence for as long as is possible. How do we do this? Well, by staying physically and mentally active.

If we look at age related loss of muscle mass and  strength (Sarcopenia), for an example, we can see how by reducing this, and improving overall strength and fitness, our wellbeing, and our physical and mental health will benefit. Sedentary people can lose between 3-5% of their muscle mass each decade after the age of 30. Obviously, any loss of muscle mass is a concern as it will affect your strength and therefore your quality of life. This age-related muscle loss, and resulting weakness is a major contributory factor in falls in the elderly. Exercise is the most powerful tool to slow down this loss, especially resistance work, i.e. weight training. This is especially true for the older adult.

Harvard University: Preserve your Muscle Mass

mum shoulder press

‘Shoulder Press’ with dumbbells

Other factors that can affect muscle loss:

* A poor diet. A diet needs to be well balanced and have enough protein in it. Protein is essential for muscle growth and maintenance. Current recommendations for adults are 0.8g per kg of body weight. However a current school of thought recommends higher levels for older adults at 1-1.5g per kg of body weight. Suggested protein requirements for the elderly.
* Hormone imbalances; for example, there is impaired muscle performance in post-menopausal women.
*Low Vitamin D levels. Many older adults are deficient in Vitamin D, and low levels are associated with sarcopenia. Low Vitamin D can also lead to soft bones, as it helps with calcium absorption.
*Too much alcohol can weaken muscle and smoking also has a detrimental effect.
(This list is not exhaustive).

At what age should we start lifting weights?

Weight training also helps strengthen our bones and joints when done correctly. With the correct guidance and support children can start to lift weights at the age of 7-8 years. Weight training can help with body composition and bone density and does not stunt growth as was once thought- but it has to be stressed- that they will need guidance and supervision to ensure correct form and technique at all times. Great Ormond Street

Weight training and bone health:

Our key bone building years are up to our mid-twenties, and the gains that we give our bones in our youth, put them in better condition to handle our older years.

Physical activity guidelines from the NHS, including resistance work: NHS guidelines on Physical Activity

Resistance Training and ‘muscle memory’:

Regular strength training develops motor neuron pathways, thereby enhancing brain-body co-ordination and functionality. This means that the brains ability to recruit muscles to perform a task, improve and become ingrained and automatic, a ‘pathway’ develops. This is ‘muscle memory’. The more often you perform the movement the more ingrained the memory. Muscle memory is like a physiological blueprint, and once it’s there, it’s always there, even if you take time out. Even if you are in your 80’s and have not been active for many years, if you were once physically active your muscles (and brain) have the amazing capacity to remember this, and the good news is you will ‘learn’ the ‘move’ even quicker this time round because the pathway is already there in your muscle memory. So, you will be able to run again, but maybe not as fast, and you will be able to lift weights again, but maybe not as heavy.

Personally, at over 50 years of age, I am lifting heavier weights than I was in my 20’s or 30’s.

Resistance exercise can take many forms- it can be with free weights like dumbbells, resistance machines, a resistance/stretchy band, even cans of soup or beans, or your own body weight, it doesn’t matter but the key is in the resistance – you are using something to resist against to stretch a muscle. You may get that achy burning sensation in your muscles, and you may get delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) but doing the exercise should not cause you pain (please read previous blogs on DOMS). The muscle aches as it is repairing, adapting and rebuilding itself, getting stronger. Increase very gradually, and take plenty of rest and water breaks. Listen to your body and be aware of your own limitations. This is where getting a qualified Personal Trainer is of huge benefit as they can guide you through the process and monitor your form and technique.


jane sit to stand

‘Sit to stand’

Sagas guidance on weight training for the older adult : Sagas home strength programme

Research has found resistance training to still be effective in people up to the age of 90, and no doubt in time, this age range will increase. Benefits of strength training for the over 50’s Strength training for the over 50’s

Exercise physiologist and researcher Mark Petersen analysed 39 studies and found that resistance training reversed age related muscle loss and those that lifted the most weight saw the most dramatic increase in upper and lower body strength. Furthermore, according to the American Council of Exercise (ACE) speaking about his extensive research studying the effects of exercise on older master athletes, Hakkinen noted, “Lifelong strength training seems to minimize age-related strength decreases at all ages, with master athletes at the age of 75 years demonstrating higher absolute strength values than untrained men at the age of 40” (Hakkinen, 2011). In his research on how GH responds to exercise in older adults, Godfrey wrote, “Resistance-trained older individuals seem to have a greater hormone response to a bout of intense exercise than endurance-trained individuals of the same age” (Godfrey and Blazevich, 2004).”

In summary, whatever your age- resistance work is of of huge benefit. It is also great fun.

“Good things don’t happen by coincidence. Every dream carries with it certain risks, especially the risk of failure. But I am not stopped by risks. Supposed a great person takes the risk and fails. Then the person must try again. You cannot fail forever. If you try ten times, you have a better chance of making it on the eleventh try than if you didn’t try at all.” Arnold Schwarzenegger (age 70).