A major issue that can affect older adults is the loss of muscle mass which can increase vulnerability to falls, increase frailty, reduce quality of life, and increase fat mass. In fact, you start to lose muscle mass from as early as your thirties, and you lose 3-8% of your muscle mass for every decade after that, with the rate of decrease rising sharply after the age of 60.
All is not lost, however, as not only is building muscle mass after 50 completely possible, it will also improve your life in all sorts of ways.
Why Do We Lose Muscle As We Age?
There are complex and varied reasons why our muscle mass decreases as we age, ranging from our biology to our behaviour.
1. Changes to muscle cells. With age comes changes to the cells within our muscles. For example, there is a reduction in the overall number of muscle cells and there is a reduction in the muscle twitch time.
2. Oxidative damage. Whenever you move your body, or you are exposed to toxins in the environment such as cigarette smoke or pollution, there is a release of free radicals. These are oxygen molecules that attach themselves to cells around the body and cause damage. This is known as oxidative damage and it can lead to health problems all over the body, including the muscles.
3. Hormones. We release less testosterone as we get older. This is especially the case for men but it also contributes to a loss of muscle for post-menopausal women because hormone replacement therapy leads to a reduction in testosterone.
4. Sedentary lifestyle. One of the major reasons for muscle loss in older adults is a lack of physical exercise. Not moving around very much causes muscles to atrophy (break down) even in young people, and older adults are more likely to have a sedentary lifestyle. It really is a case of use it or lose it!
Can Exercise Help To Increase Muscle Mass?
In short, yes. The best thing you can do to maintain, or increase, your muscle mass as you get older is to take part in regular exercise, specifically, strength or resistance training. This can feel intimidating if exercise hasn’t been a big part of your life, but it is very accessible with lots of different options depending on your personality and circumstances.
A review of 39 studies with a total of 1,300 adults over the age of 50 taking part found that regular resistance exercise (with weights or resistance bands) increased muscle mass by an average of 2.5 pounds in five months.
For older adults, it is especially important to avoid putting too much stress on the joints, so it is better to focus on whole-body movements rather than movements that focus on specific joints. For example, it is better to focus on exercises such as squats, push-ups, and core work rather than things like bicep curls. This also has the added benefit that you don’t have to train as many days a week than if you were focusing on one muscle group per day. You can expect to get benefits from strength training with around 40 minutes of training twice a week.
As you get older, weight training doesn’t need to be avoided as long as you’re mindful of the impact on your joints, for example doing squats while holding dumbbells might put too much pressure on your knees. Other than that, weight training is on the list of recommended exercises for older adults to improve muscle mass and overall health, especially when the weight is increased over time. So don’t be afraid to dust off those dumbbells and get to work!
Does It Have To Be Weights?
Resistance bands are also a good option for strength training. They work in the same way as weights for building muscle mass in that they cause tiny tears in the muscle tissue which then increases the overall mass of the muscle as it is repaired over time. Resistance bands have lots of positives which could make them a more attractive option than weights for some people – they are versatile, increase the muscles that are recruited for each movement because of their instability, they are affordable, and they are completely portable. They also minimise pressure on the lower joints. For my recommendation on some very good quality resistance bands, read my review on these great examples by Garage Fit here.
It is a good idea to include aerobic exercise in your routine as well as strength training. Along with its other health benefits, aerobic exercise will also help you to increase your muscle mass because it increases the amount of protein in the muscles, which will help them to grow
The Importance Of Good Nutrition
Don’t neglect your diet. Studies have increasingly shown that protein is especially important for maintaining and increasing muscle mass. Older adults need more protein than younger people and you need more protein when you are taking part in strength training. So you should definitely increase the amount of protein in your diet if you want to avoid losing muscle mass as you get older.
Antioxidants are also important because they scavenge the free radicals that are responsible for oxidative damage. Berries, nuts, green leafy vegetables, and colourful vegetables such as oranges or reds are good sources of antioxidants.
Other Health Benefits Of Strength Training For Older Adults
Taking part in strength training will help to increase your muscle mass, but it will also help to improve your health in lots of other ways:
- It increases bone density and reduces the risk of osteoporosis (another health problem that is common in older adults relating to low bone mass and deterioration of bone tissue).
- It lowers the risk, and reduces the symptoms, of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Muscle burns more calories than fat so increasing your muscle mass will also lower your risk of obesity, and all the potential health problems that can occur in relation to that.
- Exercise, including strength training, can also have benefits for the brain. Exercise releases endorphins which help to lower depression and which can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The Bottom Line
Losing muscle mass is not an inevitability of getting older. In fact, building muscle mass after 50 is completely possible and even advisable. Taking part in strength training on a regular basis – whether through bodyweight training, weight training, or resistance band training – will preserve your muscles and give you a variety of other health benefits that will protect both your body and your brain.
What are your thoughts on strength training as we get older? It definitely becomes more important to keep active and to try and preserve what we have as we age, but do you think over 50s can go at it in the same way as younger generations, or should they be far more cautious? Or perhaps you know of someone over 50 who can teach younger people a thing or two about keeping in great shape? Comment underneath and let me know!