As we age, we begin to lose strength and muscle mass, however, for some, this can happen more quickly. Sarcopenia is the progressive loss of muscle mass due to aging. It affects your musculoskeletal system and can increase the risk of falls and fractures, as well as contribute to frailty. Sarcopenia typically affects both men and women who are 60 and older. The good news is, healthy lifestyle choices earlier in life – and throughout later years – can help prevent your risk of suffering from sarcopenia. Let’s take a deeper dive into the science behind muscle loss and how to prevent sarcopenia so you can build a healthy foundation for muscle health.
The Science Behind Sarcopenia
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), we start losing muscle mass and strength as early as our 40s, and evidence suggests up to 50% of a loss of mass by our 80s. This is largely due to an overall decline in the size and number of skeletal muscle fibers and fibrous and adipose tissue infiltrating the skeletal muscle. While age is the largest contributing factor to sarcopenia, obesity, hormonal changes, inflammation, and a decline in activity and deteriorating nutritional habits can also play a part.
Common symptoms of sarcopenia include:
- Falls or poor balance
- Difficulty with normal daily activities, such as climbing stairs
- Decreased stamina
- Moving slowly
- Decreased muscle size
Building a Foundation for Muscle Health
The two biggest ways to build a healthy foundation for muscle as you age, and in-turn, help prevent sarcopenia, are nutrition and exercise. One 2019 study in Nutrients found malnutrition can increase the risk of sarcopenia by four times. Ensuring your diet includes enough healthy protein is key to maintaining ideal muscle mass. In addition to protein, it’s important to have the right amount of certain vitamins and minerals in your diet – Vitamin D is of particular note.
To learn more about the best way to incorporate the proper nutrition and supplements into your diet as you age, consulting with a nutritionist or learning more through AVH’s dietitian demos can be very helpful.
Building and maintaining muscle mass later is also key. Resistance training is the best way to do this, ideally two to three times per week for no fewer than 30 minutes per session. A few exercises to try include:
- Standing or bent-over rows
- Resistance band lateral walk
- Resistance band standing row
Complement your resistance and strength training with cardiovascular exercise. While this type of activity does not build muscle as quickly, it does increase your heart and lung health, which will add longevity to your resistance training.
Round out your exercise with some flexibility and balance focus. Yoga and Tai Chi are excellent ways to accomplish this, or simply roll out a mat or find a non-slide surface and spend some time stretching your muscles and working on balance exercises. This helps move lactic acid out of your muscles as well as targets the smaller muscles that help keep our bodies from succumbing to frailty and falls. Finally, drink plenty of water. Proper hydration is another elemental factor in keeping muscles healthy and active.
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Lifestyle Habits that Support Muscle Preservation
Proper rehabilitation is just as important to prevent sarcopenia as putting in the time at the gym or on the trail. These healthy practices allow your body time to heal, giving it the time it needs to build up new muscle strength.
Get plenty of sleep
Practicing good sleep hygiene is essential to muscle maintenance. This is the time when your body rests, recovers, and builds or rebuilds your muscles. Make sure to get adequate rest.
Too much stress can negatively affect your muscle growth. When your body experiences physical or emotional stress, it releases the hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol can affect protein and carbohydrate metabolism in muscle tissue, ultimately leading to muscle weakness.
Avoid Smoking and Alcohol
While it’s a well known fact that smoking and too much alcohol consumption are bad for our bodies, both can have a direct effect on muscle growth. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Smoking has been shown to impair muscle protein synthesis and to increase the expression of genes associated with impaired muscle maintenance.” Alcohol falls into the same harmful substances category. NIH’s National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that moderate alcohol consumption does not impair muscle growth, however, “Chronic alcohol consumption leads to muscle weakness and atrophy.”
Staying Engaged and Motivated
A large part of continuing to build and maintain strength later in life is finding enticing ways to do it. Staying motivated can be tricky, but there are ways to keep yourself on the right track to avoid sarcopenia as you age.
Find a Social Connection
If you don’t love exercising alone, look for a class or instructor near you. Group exercise can be a fun, motivating and engaging way to stay on top of your strength and exercise. It’s also a great way to meet others with the same objectives.
Maybe it’s being able to walk a mile – or run 26.2. Laying out a road map for your long-term commitment to sarcopenia prevention is an excellent way to keep yourself on track, so to speak. Find a happy mix of realistic and aspirational goals. Consider signing up for a race or athletic event, or set an end-of-season objective of summiting one of the Roaring Fork Valley’s many beautiful peaks.
Track Your Progress
Whether it’s through your device’s health app, or a more traditional exercise journal or calendar, monitoring your daily accomplishments can empower you to keep going. It’s also a great reminder of how far you’ve come!
Beyond Physical Measures
Preventing sarcopenia goes beyond just the physical aspects of your health. As your body ages, developing a consistent physical strength training plan can also contribute to your overall mental health, tapping into the mind-muscle connection. Of course, aging well can be a daunting task on your own. Look to your healthcare provider, specialists and personal trainers and instructors to learn more about the best path for your health. Maggie Gerardi, the director of Whitcomb Terrace in the Roaring Fork Valley, provides some insight into healthy senior living in Aspen.
Aging doesn’t mean our lives stop. In fact, getting older is the best reason there is to actively pursue mental, physical and emotional strength. As you get older, focus on the activities that bring you joy and contribute to your long-term health in the process.
A few simple measures can help empower you against sarcopenia as you age. Make sure you’re incorporating strength exercises into your daily routine, and that you’re eating a healthy, well-balanced diet that includes plenty of nutritional protein.
Taking action today will help arm your muscles against sarcopenia in the years to come. Talk with your healthcare provider about the best way to ensure you’re protecting your body from frailty and falls by focusing on building healthy muscle mass.