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Age-Related Muscle Loss: If You Don’t Use It, You Could Lose It

April 2, 2014
Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Gray hairs, a few wrinkles… most of us accept these natural changes as we age. We also tend to lose muscle as we get older. That’s one change we should not accept with good grace.

Why we lose muscle

For reasons scientists don’t completely understand, the body tends to lose muscle mass after the age of 40.

The condition, called sarcopenia, gets more noticeable after the age of 50. Even people who exercise regularly notice some loss of fitness and strength as they age.

Several factors can lead to muscle loss in seniors, including not getting enough exercise and poor nutrition. Inflammation and arthritis may also contribute to muscle loss in seniors.

Fitness matters

If you’ve been working out all your life, and stay fit as you age, losing a small amount of muscle tone is probably no big deal. You may find you have a slower time running for ten miles or getting tired sooner during a workout.

Less fit people can face even more serious problems. Losing what little muscle they have can lead to an increased risk for falls, for example. Falls can cause serious injuries, including broken hips, lead to loss of mobility, and are a leading cause of accidental death in seniors.

In addition, seniors with poor muscle tone may find it difficult or impossible to climb stairs, lift parcels or even get out of bed. In other words, losing muscle can mean losing the ability to live an independent life.

Never too late

It sounds a little grim, especially if you’ve lived a sedentary life. Still, it’s never too late to adopt good health habits. In fact, studies have shown that even people at the age of 80 and older can benefit from weight training to restore muscle mass.

Get started!

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Starting an exercise program can mean lifting small weights at home, or using the flex machines at the community center or health club.

If you have a local community adult education program or YMCA, check out exercise classes that can help you get started.

Try to strength train at least twice a week, and more often as you build your endurance.

Older people will not bounce back from exercise as easily as younger adults, so be sure to allow plenty of recovery time between workouts.

More than muscle-building

In addition to working on your muscle tone through strength training, try to aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobics daily. Walking, swimming, bicycling, using a stationary bike or running can improve your overall fitness and health. Aerobic exercise improves blood flow to the muscles, keeping them healthy.

Include flexibility exercises in your workout as well. Stretching, yoga and similar exercises can warm up the muscles and also reduce the risk of a tear or pull.

Health and nutrition matters

Eat some protein at every meal if you can. Researchers have found that a small amount of protein (about 4 oz.) at each meal helps the body to repair and maintain muscles throughout the day.

Consult your doctor!

Before you start a vigorous exercise program, consult with a health professional. Discuss your current health status and any limitations you have.

If you have arthritis or an inflammatory disease, get medical advice on how to control the condition, exercise safely, and reduce the damage to your muscle tone.

Some loss of fitness is natural as we age, but too many people experience loss of muscle tone without realizing they could have avoided it.

Don’t let that happen to you. When you hear someone say “Use it or lose it” keep in mind that they could be referring to your muscles, and your independence.

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