I’ve just read an article containing the quote: “aging is the progressive and inevitable process of bodily deterioration during adulthood”. Happy New Year one and all; here’s to continued bodily deterioration! It certainly isn’t the most uplifting term, even though it’s something we’ve all experienced after failing to bounce back following a night out. While it’s true that we slowly lose muscle and fitness as we age, the important thing is that we can all do something about it!
What happens to our muscles as we age?
From around our 40s we can lose up to a mind boggling 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. The jury is out on whether the menopause and resulting drop in hormone levels has an additional effect on muscle loss is currently unclear. Muscle loss seems to accelerate at the menopause but we don’t currently know if it’s related to falling hormone levels or other factors such as lack of exercise, low protein intake or other age-related changes. It’s therefore unclear whether hormone replacement therapy can help to reduce age related muscle loss. Today, 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.
OK, I’m in, what can I do to reduce muscle loss?
First up, get off the sofa. 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. But that’s the subject of a separate blog!
But will I have to join a gym and end up looking like Arnie?
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!
Is strong the new skinny?
Don’t even get me started on these stupid internet memes depicting bubble booties in impossibly high waisted leggings. Yes, it’s true that weight training can have aesthetic benefits if that’s your jam but I have issues with the terms skinny or strong in this context as it still implies that we must conform to a narrow aesthetic ideal, whether that is model thin (or having curves in the right places with no wobbly bits) or athlete-ripped, both of which are unattainable for most and hugely objectifying.
Sure, lots of people go to the gym to lose weight or tone up and if that’s what motivates you to keep at it, then brilliant. But at the same time, don’t feel like someone is forcing you to do something you feel uncomfortable with, purely to change the way you look. Do resistance exercise because you enjoy it, because you’re investing in your health, and not because Instagram told you to get a bum like Kim K!
Banner image by Matias Saw on Unsplash.