Most people have never heard of sarcopenia, but risk for it increases dramatically for those in their 40s, 50s and 605—and an estimated 50% of adults age 75 and older have the condition.
What is this common—but little-known—health problem?
It's age-related muscle loss, also known as muscle atrophy. Sarcopenia can have several causes, including a lack of physical activity, insufficient dietary protein, diminishing levels of hormones that affect muscles and the decline in muscle mass that naturally occurs with aging.
Because sarcopenia progresses very gradually-it's common to lose approximately 1% of muscle mass per year from about age 40 to age 65 and about 2% per year thereafter-you're unlikely to notice it until you discover that you can't do something you've always done, whether it's lift your grandchild, swing a golf club or get out of a chair.
Good news: While you can't entirely prevent sarcopenia, you can substantially control the rate of muscle decline—and even reverse previous losses-with strengthening exercises and an appropriate diet. Numerous studies have shown that as little as two months of proper training can boost muscle strength by as much as 40%-and it's never too late to start. Even men and women in their 90s can improve muscle mass and strength with strength training.
Why You Need Strong Muscles
If you think bodybuilders are the only ones who need strong muscles, consider this: healthy muscles have been shown to help us…
- Maintain independence into old age. Muscle strength enables us to perform the tasks of daily living, including getting dressed, bathing and climbing stairs.
- Avoid falls. Strong muscles are essential for balance and help safeguard us against hip fractures and other debilitating or life-threatening injuries.
- Boost metabolism. Muscle burns more blood sugar glucose) than fat does, helping us to keep off unwanted pounds and protecting us against diabetes and obesity.
Aerobic exercise is essential for cardiovascular fitness, but it's typically not enough to maintain the strength of all your major muscles. Even if you regularly walk or run, you're susceptible to sarcopenia.
That's because walking or running does not prevent you from losing muscle mass (the amount of muscle you have) and muscle strength (what you can do with that muscle) from your core and upper-body muscles. Your core muscles (abdomen, low back, hip and buttocks) and upper-body muscles (arm, chest, shoulder, upper back and neck) are crucial—they allow you to pick up heavy packages, rise from a low chair and perform most everyday activities.
My advice: Aim to do two or three strength-training workouts weekly, consisting of six to eight exercises.* Appropriate exercises can be performed on weight-training machines, with hand weights (dumbbells) or by using the resistance created by your own body weight. Ideally, your workout will include two sets of 12 to 15 repetitions of each exercise.
Examples: To target your pectoral (chest) muscles, try push-ups...for your back muscles, try a rowing machine...to work your lower body, try leg lifts, squats and lunges (taking long steps forward or backward from an upright position).
If you're using hand weights, you'll need to experiment to find the right weight. Select a weight you can lift 12—but no more than 15times using perfect form. By the last repetition, it should be difficult-but possible—for you to lift the weight without jerking it up or dropping it.
Best: Work with a trainer at your local gym, who can help you devise a routine and demonstrate proper technique. You often can accomplish this in a single training session, which typically costs $50 to $100.
Up Your Protein Intake
Studies show that up to 27% of older Americans are not getting the recommended daily intake of protein (56 g daily for men...46 g daily for women). Yet we appear to need even more protein in later life, as our bodies become less efficient at converting it into muscle.
My advice: To get a better estimate of your protein requirement, divide your body weight in half, and aim for that number daily in grams of protein.
*Consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program.
Example: If you weigh 150 pounds, consume about 75 g of protein daily.
Beef, pork, chicken, turkey, tuna and salmon are highly concentrated sources of protein, generally offering more than 20 g of protein per 35-ounce serving.
Other good protein sources: Eggs, low-fat milk and yogurt, tofu and legumes (such as black beans, lentils and kidney beans).
Caution: If you want to try protein supplements or shakes (which typically contain high levels of protein per serving), talk to your doctor-especially if you have kidney or liver disease, which can affect your body's ability to break down and excrete large amounts of protein. In addition, high intakes of protein (more than 150 g daily) from food can tax the kidneys and liver.
A Supplement That Helps
There is no silver bullet to combat sarcopenia, but that hasn't stopped supplement makers from promising strength in a bottle. Human growth hormone (HGH) has been touted as a "fountain of youth," but there have been no reliable clinical trials showing that HGH significantly improves strength or endurance, and the potential side effects include tissue swelling and joint pain.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a naturally occurring substance that, when metabolized, turns into testosterone, a hormone that contributes to healthy muscle mass in men and women. DHEA and testosterone have been sold as muscle-building supplements, but so far, neither has been proven to deliver a significant strength or endurance benefit. In addition, supplemental testosterone may increase men's risk for prostate cancer. In women, it may cause acne and/or facial hair.
Preliminary evidence suggests that creatine, a substance that is produced naturally in the liver and helps to fuel muscle cells, may boost the beneficial effects of strength training.
New finding: Older adults who took a 5-8 supplement of creatine daily-and did strength training twice weekly for 60 minutes per session-had 10% to 15% greater gains in muscle mass and strength after six months than those who relied on exercise alone.
If you want to maximize the benefits of your strength training, ask your doctor about taking creatine as an adjunct to a strength-training regimen. Known side effects include muscle cramps and gastrointestinal upset. More studies are needed before creatine can be definitively recommended as a muscle-enhancing supplement for all older adults.