Use it or lose it – this is a phrase I’m sure you’re familiar with. It holds a lot of truth when it comes to muscle. Unlike bone, which of course can also decrease in mass as we age, muscle starts to diminish quickly, particularly if it’s not used or stimulated. Known as sarcopenia, it is a decline in skeletal muscle mass that typically affects older people, but can affect the much younger population as well. It can begin as early as age 40, and without intervention can get increasingly worse, with as much as half of muscle mass lost by age 70. Over time the muscle gets replaced by fat and fibrous tissue, making muscles resemble a well-marbled steak.
Is Sarcopenia Bad?
“Sarcopenia can be considered for muscle what osteoporosis is to bone,” Dr. John E. Morley, geriatrician at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, wrote in the journal Family Practice. He pointed out that up to 13 percent of people in their 60s and as many as half of those in their 80s have sarcopenia. As Dr. Jeremy D. Walston, geriatrician at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, put it, “Sarcopenia is one of the most important causes of functional decline and loss of independence in older adults.” Yet few practicing physicians alert their older patients to this condition and tell them how to slow or reverse what is otherwise an inevitable decline. It can seriously impair their physical and emotional well-being and ability to carry out the tasks of daily life. Sarcopenia is also associated with a number of chronic diseases, increasing insulin resistance, fatigue, falls, and alas, death. A decline in physical activity, common among older people, is only one reason sarcopenia happens. Other contributing factors include hormonal changes, chronic illness, body-wide inflammation and poor nutrition. So in essence, yes, sarcopenia is bad but highly preventable.
What Can I Do?
No matter how old or out of shape you are, you can restore much of the strength you might have lost. Dr. Moffat noted that research documenting the ability to reverse the losses of sarcopenia — even among nursing home residents in their 90s — has been in medical literature for nearly 30 years, and the time is long overdue to act on it. In 1988, Walter R. Frontera and colleagues at the Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University demonstrated that 12 previously sedentary men aged 60 to 72 significantly increased their leg strength and muscle mass with a 12-week strength-training program three times a week. Two years later in JAMA, Dr. Maria A. Fiatarone and colleagues at the Tufts research center reported that eight weeks of “high-intensity resistance training” significantly enhanced the physical abilities of nine frail nursing home residents aged 90 and older. Strength gains averaged 174 percent, mid-thigh muscle mass increased 9 percent, and walking speed improved 48 percent. So, what are you waiting for? If you’re currently sedentary or have a serious chronic illness, check first with your doctor. But as soon as you get the go-ahead, start a strength-training program using free weights, resistance bands or machines, preferably after taking a few lessons from a certified trainer. Proper technique is critical to getting the desired results without incurring an injury. It’s very important to start at the appropriate level of resistance.
Dr. Morley, among others, points out that adding and maintaining muscle mass also requires adequate nutrients, especially 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, Dr. Morley said that 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. “Protein acts synergistically with exercise to increase muscle mass,” Dr. Morley wrote, adding that protein foods naturally rich in the amino acid leucine — milk, cheese, beef, tuna, chicken, peanuts, soybeans and eggs — are most effective.
The point to take home is that sarcopenia is not necessarily an age related condition. A sedentary lifestyle or a regular exercise program that does not utilize some form of resistance training are at risk. Start now and be strong for the rest of your life.
Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better
COMING NEXT MONTH!!!
Stay tuned for my 13th year of my 12 Days of Fitness, 12 articles written by me throughout the year to keep your health and fitness in focus through the busy holiday season.