Maintaining muscle mass as we age
August 1, 2023 | View PDF
Like keeping your bones strong, maintaining or even building muscle as we age requires daily movement and good nutrition. Staying strong as we age will not only be useful for hauling groceries, keeping our home clean, enjoying recreational activities, but also serve to elevate our mood. When it comes to muscle mass, the old adage "use it or lose it" definitely applies.
Establish a routine
Lifting weights is a proven method for building and maintaining both muscle mass and bone density as we age. Start slow and low. You don't need to have dumbbells or kettlebells or any fancy equipment. If you like going to the gym and can afford a membership, great! But you can easily maintain or even improve your strength at home. There are many resources online.
Start by hard-wiring into your schedule two 20-minute sessions per week. Resistance training – challenging yourself to push or pull heavier-than-usual weights, quickly – is the most efficient way to build muscle. Each session can involve 10 minutes of lower body strength exercises and 10 minutes of upper body. For upper body, use soup cans or 1 to 3 pound weights in each hand to push your arms overhead as quickly as is comfortable for your shoulders/elbows/wrists, to fatigue. If you don't get a little burn after 10 to 12 repetitions, increase your weight. Repeat this "set" two more times.
Follow the same idea for three sets of biceps curls, and then finish with holding cans out from sides of body and doing small rotations, first one direction then the other direction. This last arm movement will require a lower weight, or keeping your elbows bent. Once this routine is established, add triceps dips.
The basic lower body move is squats. You don't even need to add weight. Make sure to stick your bottom way back as the knees bend so that your knees stay more or less over your feet. Pressing your arms forward is a nice counter-balance for the bottom going back.
Hold onto the edge of a table or window ledge if needed when first doing squats. A chair modification would be seated, then alternately lift each thigh as high as possible in a "marching" movement, to fatigue. Repeat twice more. You can also engage in "power chair stands" which is basically getting up and down from a seated position without using your arms. Extend your resistance training with heavier weight, longer sessions, quicker movements, as feasible.
The main thing is to stay consistent. Commit to this self-care in your schedule. It's fun! Bonus points for breaking a light sweat.
Track these numbers
Almost everyone will shrink in old age. Gravity happens. I encourage folks to keep track of their height quarterly, or every six months, from age 60 on. This is a reliable indicator of bone density, and considerably less expensive than DEXA scans. The way to keep bones strong is movement – every day – and also supplementing vitamin D3 to keep serum levels in the 50 to 90 ng/mL range. If you don't know your vitamin D3 level, get that checked. You can go to a health fair or order a home kit for $45 online.
Multiple factors contribute to age-related muscle loss and this typically starts as early as in our 30s, accelerating after age 60 to as much as 10% per decade. Losing strength can be frustrating but don't give up. Muscle is very dynamic tissue and "turn-over" (creation of new muscle cells) happens continuously until death.
The loss of skeletal muscle (the source of our strength) was classified as a disease fairly recently. Sarcopenia involves the long slender muscle cells becoming less contractile, like a rubber band losing elasticity, as well as mutations occurring at the neuro-muscular junctions, where the muscle cells connect to the nervous system and where brain signals to initiate movement take effect. Mutations can build up over time but there is a remedy for reducing them – eat a diet high in vegetables, lean protein and unprocessed carbs.
Diet and hormones
Poor diet will absolutely exacerbate diminishing repair of mutated (less functional) muscle cells. Make every bite count. There are zero health benefits for refined/processed/packaged foods, especially the array of refined carbohydrates, such as store bought pizza crust, crackers, cookies, chips, candy, etc,, including the ultimate refined carb, alcohol.
Hormone changes are another contribution to age-related muscle loss and hormone supplementation may be a worthwhile consideration for you. This is a highly personal decision to be made with your health care provider.
Nevertheless, the main driver for loss of muscle mass is a decrease in physical activity. Whether you use a walker or are in a wheelchair, or can still climb stairs, plan to get moving every day. Your muscles need it, and so does your spirit. Good diet helps everything, but maintaining muscle comes down to continued movement. Maintain your gardening, or take it up; use your bicycle or install a stationary bike at home; find a senior dance class or yoga class; walk the dog daily, even if you don't have one.
Muscle loss is a contributor to severe falls and accidents, which precede physical disability in older adults. You don't need bulky muscles; regular movement will improve strength even if muscles don't get bigger. So get moving to improve the quality of your life.
Emily Kane is a naturopathic doctor based in Juneau. Contact her online at http://www.dremilykane.com.