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Do People Lose Muscle as They Age?

Will you lose muscle as you get older?

Age-related sarcopenia refers to the loss of skeletal muscle mass that often accompanies aging. This type of muscle atrophy can occur with age but also immobility. Is it inevitable? Are we destined to lose muscle and strength no matter what as we grow older? 

Or can you slow this progression—or possibly reverse it?

Can you even gain muscle as you age?

Muscle Loss and Aging

Physically inactive people can lose as much as 3 to 5 percent of their muscle mass each decade after age 30. This study concluded that aging leads to a significant loss of muscle mass and strength. 

That sounds awful until you read this line: “The decrease in physical activity with (the) aging process is the key factor in development of strength and muscle mass loss.”

That means inactive people lose strength and muscle more quickly than active people, and they lose it much more quickly than people who train to preserve strength and muscle.

Good news: Strength training is an important tool to counteract sarcopenia at any age.

Sarcopenia: Who Does It Affect—and Why?

Sarcopenia is a disease that primarily affects the elderly, although it can occur in younger people who are still physically active. This suggests multiple factors are at play. Potential causes include:

  1. A natural decline of testosterone.
  2. Changes in protein oxidation.
  3. Inadequate nutrition.
  4. Decreased mobility.

Keep in mind that No. 3 and No. 4 can be addressed with a sound fitness and nutrition program.

There is no definitive test to diagnose sarcopenia, although criteria include metrics on walking speed, distance walked in 6 minutes or grip strength. Other screening tools include feeling physically weaker regularly,  having trouble navigating common daily activities, climbing stairs and standing up from a chair. 

Sarcopenia is classified as a disease and will be diagnosed when a patient has muscle mass that is at least two standard deviations below the relevant population mean and has a slow walking speed. 

How Can You Prevent Muscle Loss With Age?

Exercise is the best way to slow or even stop muscle loss with age. 

Though all people will lose strength and muscle as they age, it’s still possible to gain strength at any age and slow the decline. 

Think of an Olympic champion weightlifter: He or she will not be as strong at 90 as at 24. But that lifter can still remain very strong.

Another example: Think of a person who has never lifted weights—not at 20 and not at 60. What if the person starts lifting regularly at 61? He or she will almost certainly become stronger. 

Read more about that here: “Aging, Performance and Health.”

We’ve also seen older adults gain muscle mass through training. This was documented with InBody scans that showed an increase in muscle. These people were also stronger in the gym.

Although there isn’t a standard prescription for what type of training is best (including intensity and duration), resistance training is likely the best intervention. Strength training helps to build and preserve lean tissue, and when it’s combined with appropriate nutrition, it is a truly effective course of treatment with no negative side effects.

Working with a coach to create a program that focuses on progressive overload will help build lean muscle mass, preserve mobility and help you live independently longer. Nutrition should focus on  taking in adequate calories—from protein, in particular—to address the changes happening with muscle-protein synthesis and aging. 

Muscle Loss and Aging: The Bottom Line

Aging does not mean you need to become weak and frail. 

“Noticeable slowing with age is driven in part by biology but is significantly affected by the choice to spend time on the couch,” Lon Kilgore wrote in “You Don’t Have to Be Old and Broken.”  

Further: “We can maintain a tremendously large portion of our younger function if we simply train regularly and progressively.”

This is wonderful news—and we’ve seen proof. Working with older adults for years, we’ve seen them improve function, regain range of motion, gain strength and add muscle. We’ve helped a woman over 50 do a pull-up for the first time, and we’ve helped a man over 80 maintain the ability to do pull-ups. We’ve helped people who had trouble rising, stand up easily—and some of them then lost the ability when they stopped training.

If you’re worried about sarcopenia or strength loss as you age, take heart: Diet and exercise are amazing we can use to help you gain and maintain strength at any age.

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