What happens to our muscles as we age?
From around our 30’s we can lose up to a mind boggling 3-8% of our body’s muscle mass every decade. At the same time as losing muscle mass, our muscle quality and strength also declines – we can lose up to 3% of our strength per year. Why is this? Partly because we tend to be less active as we get older but also a poor diet (particularly one that lacks sufficient protein) can push our bodies more towards breaking down rather than building muscle at a time when building and repairing muscle seems to become more challenging for the body. Let’s focus on simple ways in which we CAN reduce the loss of muscle mass and strength as we age.
Why does muscle loss matter?
Age-related loss of muscle mass and strength (or sarcopenia to give it its medical term) can creep up on us and, at first, might not be a cause for alarm. You may find you can lift slightly less heavy items or find it harder to balance than you once did. But as the muscle loss progresses into older age, those slight compromises are amplified. This isn’t about no longer being able to bench press a small cow; this is about being able to walk down the stairs without risking a fall, being able to get up out of a chair without help or being able to carry your shopping from the car. Age-related muscle loss and frailty can drastically reduce mobility, increase the risk of falls and injuries and greatly affect quality of life as we age.
And don’t forget, muscle tissue is active tissue. It burns more calories than fat stores even when you’re sitting on the sofa watching Strictly. The more muscle you can preserve, the less likely you are to see the dip in metabolic rate that may contribute to middle aged spread.
What can I do to reduce muscle loss?
Plenty of research shows that being active into old age has a wealth of benefits from preserving muscle mass and strength to reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cancer and even Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also mood-boosting and can be sociable too.
When it comes to hanging onto your muscles, all activity is not equal. Of course, doing some cardiovascular activity, whether it is walking, cycling, running or classes, is good for your heart but it’s resistance exercise that really helps boost both muscle and bone health (and bone boosting is really important for ladies who are peri- and post-menopausal to help reduce the risk of osteoporosis).
Eating more protein foods might also help, as increasing amounts of research show that, as we get older, we may need more protein to achieve the same muscle building effects as we did in our younger years.
Will I have to join a gym?
Resistance exercise can be done anywhere. It doesn’t have to mean pumping iron at the gym, although don’t be shy: the free weights area is a great place to develop strength and I promise you faithfully you will not get big (not unless you really want to and then it is hard hard work). But you can also use resistance bands and small hand weights at home. Check out the British Heart Foundation tips for starters and then work up to tougher workouts that you can find here for example. Pilates classes, boot camps and Cross Fit are also great ways to incorporate resistance training into your life and usually cater for all abilities while also being really sociable.
Aim to build up to around 3 resistance training sessions a week if you can. I like to split up my body parts so I’ll do one day focussed on chest, biceps and abs, one on back and triceps, and one on legs and shoulders but you can do your whole body each time or a different split. Remember to always keep your core strong and to incorporate balance work into your workouts, for example, split squats, walking lunges and stability ball work. Pilates is great for strengthening your core and remember, you core isn’t just your 6 pack (not that I can see mine but it’s in there somewhere!) Your core includes deep abdominal muscles as well as numerous muscles in the glutes that help stabilise us when we walk, run, sit or exercise. Core work is an essential part of any resistance training and programme and shouldn’t be relegated to the lying on the mat bit at the end of a workout!