THE IMPORTANCE OF PREVENTING MUSCLE LOSS AS WE AGE
Many people over the age of 50, can develop a condition called sarcopenia, which essentially means a decline in muscle mass as we age. Sarcopenia begins as early as age 40 and, without intervention, gets increasingly worse, with as much as half of muscle mass lost by age 70. (If you’re wondering, it’s replaced by fat and fibrous tissue, making muscles resemble a well-marbled steak.) In essence, sarcopenia is to muscle as osteoporosis is to bone. Studies show that up to 13 percent of people in their 60s and as many as half of those in their 80s have sarcopenia. It is one of the biggest causes of functional decline and loss of independence in older adults.
The good news is that no matter how old or out of shape you are, you can restore much of the strength you already lost through exercise and nutrition, particularly adequate protein, the main constituent of healthy muscle tissue.
Protein needs are based on a person’s ideal body weight, so if you’re overweight or underweight, subtract or add pounds to determine how much protein you should eat each day. To enhance muscle mass, older people, who absorb protein less effectively, require at least 0.54 grams of protein per pound of ideal body weight, an amount well above what older people typically consume.
Thus, if you are a sedentary aging adult who should weigh 150 pounds, you may need to eat as much as 81 grams (0.54 x 150) of protein daily. To give you an idea of how this translates into food, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter has 8 grams of protein; 1 cup of nonfat milk, 8.8 grams; 2 medium eggs, 11.4 grams; one chicken drumstick, 12.2 grams; a half-cup of cottage cheese, 15 grams; and 3 ounces of flounder, 25.5 grams. Or if you prefer turkey to fish, 3 ounces has 26.8 grams of protein.
Most people accept the loss of muscle, bone, and all the downsides that follow as a natural part of aging. But studies show you can slow and delay these processes by years or even decades with a muscle strengthening program that works your entire body. Scientists at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging found that doing just two resistance-training sessions each week can reverse the age-related cellular damage that contributes to sarcopenia and functional impairment. “Resistance training is the closest thing to the fountain of youth that we have,” said Brad Schoenfeld, an assistant professor of exercise science and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Lehman College in New York.
One of the worst parts about losing muscle as we age is that we also get fatter. The average person gains about a pound of fat a year in middle age. That means that our bodies undergo a striking change in composition, with muscle-melting away and fat creeping in to take its place. This reshaping of the body reduces your metabolic rate because muscle is more metabolically active than fat, which causes things to get worse and worse.
But a recent landmark study provided some reassuring news. It looked at the effects of diet and exercise programs on 250 people over the age of 60 to compare how the programs affected their fat and muscle composition. The subjects were split into three groups. One was assigned to follow a program that cut about 300 calories a day from their diets. Another group cut calories and did about 45 minutes of aerobic exercise four times a week. And a third group cut calories while embarking on a resistance-training program.
The results were striking. The subjects that combined both diet and exercise lost the most amount of weight, about 20 pounds on average. But what’s really interesting is that the group that did aerobic exercise lost 16 pounds of fat and four pounds of muscle – while the group that did resistance training lost more fat (18 pounds) and less muscle (only two pounds).
Strength training requires little special equipment—(1) a sturdy chair(that will not slip or rock, (2) light weights of 3 pounds, 5 pounds, and 8 pounds so you can increase the weight as you get stronger, and (3) exercise space. In addition, good shoes are essential for any exercise. For strength training, try athletic shoes with good support, such as walking, running, or cross-training sneakers. The sole should be rubber, but not too thick, because fat soles may cause you to trip.
Determine when you are best able to fit strength training into your schedule. Stick to it as you would any appointment. There are no rules about the best time to exercise. But keep in mind that you should exercise on three non-consecutive days of the week (say, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; or Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday). This gives your muscles a proper rest. You can also try doing lower body exercises one day and then upper body exercises the next. This way, you will avoid overworking the same muscle groups.
A terrific resource to show you exactly what exercises to do can be found at the following link (jump directly to Chapter 5):
Never start an exercise program without consulting your physician about what is best for you.