As we grow older, our bodies change and that’s true of how we build and sustain muscle mass and strength.
We sure had it easy in our twenties. At the peak of our physical prowess, our bodies could burn calories sitting still and they kept building bones until the age of 25. But once we hit our thirties, that’s when things begin to change. We may lose strength, mobility, balance and muscle. The speed at which this condition (commonly known as sarcopenia) accelerates and grows exponentially the older we get at an average rate of three to five percent per decade.
Biology is hard to fight, but there is good news when it comes to aging and muscle loss. We can actually slow it down, and in some instances, even reverse it.
What it requires is not that unusual from what we’ve been told our whole lives, that physical exercise is important, as is following a healthy, clean diet. By implementing some simple, active measures you will yield the greatest impact in later years.
Here’s what to consider:
Strength training strategies
“This is unequivocally the number one thing someone can do,” says Mary-Catherine Fraser Saxena, physiotherapist and clinic director at Totum Life Science in Toronto. “It’s critical in helping you maintain the ability – and the strength – to perform the regular activities of daily living.”
“Immobility and a sedentary lifestyle
is the biggest precursor to
For Fraser Saxena, this can come in a myriad of different forms. At its most fundamental, strength training involves using weights to create resistance against the pull of gravity, but this “weight” can be anything you choose from your own body to free weights, to elastic bands, dumbbells or barbells.
She also suggests also incorporating body resistance poses, like those found in yoga or martial arts, as well as Pilates, or even moving against the resistance of water like in an aquafit class or swimming. “The idea is that you move, in some capacity, every day,” she says. “Immobility and a sedentary lifestyle is the biggest precursor to sarcopenia.”
Eat more protein-rich foods
One of the major reasons older adults are affected by a decline in muscle mass is because they’re not eating enough calories, protein and amino acids. Amino acids work double-duty as the building blocks of muscle tissue, while helping to build and repair muscle too. As we age, our body composition changes. Muscle mass and bone density decreases, so we need additional protein to help mitigate the tissue repair while also reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Older adults find it challenging to obtain high-quality protein from dietary sources (simply put, our tastes and appetites change), but any animal protein (including chicken, fish, eggs, lean red meat and dairy) are considered complete proteins that contain all the essential amino acids required for muscle growth. “The quality of the protein is important,” says Fraser Saxena. “while vitamin D and omega-3s also play a big role in the synthesis of muscle cells.”
Plant or whey proteins – including peanuts, beans and soy – may not be as easily digestible or absorbed in the body as quickly as animal proteins, but they still carry many benefits for stimulating muscle growth.
Canadian scientists out of McMaster University in Hamilton, ON, went so far as to create a ready-to-drink formula that’s a protein-rich supplement, specifically designed for people. It includes whey protein, creatine, vitamin D, calcium and fish oil and it’s the first time these ingredients have been mixed in an attempt to stave off sarcopenia. In the study, participants noted a change in their body composition. Within the first six weeks, those taking the supplement saw a gain of 700 grams in lean body mass – the same amount of muscle an older person would normally lose in a year. And when combined with exercise twice weekly, participants noticed greater strength gains as well.
Increase your intake of anti-inflammatory foods
Chronic, low-grade inflammation has been noted to contribute to the loss of muscle mass, strength and functionality. Swap out sugary, refined foods with nutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory foods found in a Mediterranean diet, like green leafy vegetables, blueberries, pineapple, walnuts and salmon. Research as shown this diet can reduce the effects of inflammation on the cardiovascular system, while the increased amounts of antioxidants reduce the number of free radicals – molecules in the body that may damage cells and increase the risk of certain diseases.