Preserving Lean Muscle Mass As You Age

January 31, 2022

Woman outside walking

No doubt we’ve all heard the phrase “little old man” or “little old woman” used to describe older folks who are not only shorter than they used to be in their prime but in many cases, have also experienced a profound loss of lean muscle mass.

People between the ages of 40 and 60 gain, on average, about one pound of fat per year and lose a half-pound of muscle per year. By the time you reach 75, an astounding 50 percent of your muscle mass might be gone! That is, unless we do something about it.

So why is it important to conserve muscle mass as we age?

Power and Strength

The loss of muscle mass means loss of strength and physical power.  Declining strength and endurance also corresponds to reduced endurance and diminished neuromuscular coordination.  All of this can cause us to curtail our physical activities and increase our risk for falls and other disease.

Reducing Disease and Risk of Falls

Higher levels of lean body mass has also been clinically shown to help protect us from developing diabetes and insulin resistance.  Higher muscle mass has been associated with better insulin sensitivity and lowers the risk of developing diabetes.  Lean body mass also promotes better bone health.  Strong muscles exert healthy force on bones which improves bone density, promotes healthy bone remodeling and greatly reduces our risk of falls and fractures. The most serious complication of a fall in an older person is a hip fracture. These injuries are associated with a much higher risk of death in the year following the fracture and also increase the person’s risk of death for up to ten years after the fall!

Keeping your lean body mass high also protects you from some of the effects of cancer, should you be diagnosed with it. Cancer and many other illnesses greatly increase the demands on your body for protein, at times far beyond what you can get from your diet. This extra protein comes from the breakdown of muscle and those with low levels of muscle mass to begin with don’t do as well during a bout with cancer as those with higher levels of muscle before their diagnosis.

Maintaining and Building Lean Body Mass

A lot of people mistakenly believe that older adults cannot build lean body mass but that isn’t true. Research has shown that throughout our lives we can reserve our lean body mass and, at all ages, actually increase it.  In our middle years and older, our bodies will still respond very well to movement and exercise.   Even small amounts of strength training with cardio will build results.   Consider making time for a daily walk which will help with cardio and preserve muscle and strength not to mention improving mental health.  You might even consider some tiny light weights around ankles or wrists. 

It’s also important to think of increasing overall muscle power in our legs (our key to mobility), by doing quicker movements against resistance.  Our own body weight can be an effective means of developing power.  Think of climbing stairs.  Hold the handrail and increase the speed or push off each step as quickly as possible.  If you’re keen to work your way into exercising you can try using elastic resistance bands.  Research shows exercise with bands produces nearly the same gain in muscle mass as using traditional weights.

It’s also good to remember that the greater your lean muscle mass, the higher your metabolic rate tends to be. This means you burn more calories even while you are not exercising, as muscle always requires energy from calories while fat cells do not.

Your diet also plays a role in building muscle mass. Protein is the all-powerful muscle food. Proteins get broken down into amino acids, which the body then uses to build muscle.  Marine collagen offer an excellent source of pure protein, and it’s already broken down into tiny peptides (small chains of amino acids) for excellent absorption.

When it comes to muscle mass, the old adage of “use it or lose it" holds true!

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