Best Ways to Reverse Age-Related Muscle Loss

As we get older, losing muscle mass is an unfortunate but common occurrence. However, research shows that muscle loss is not an inevitable part of aging. There are steps we can take to maintain and even rebuild muscle as we get older. Here are 7 evidence-based strategies to reverse age-related muscle loss.

The Problem of Muscle Loss

Muscle loss, also known as sarcopenia, is extremely common as we get older. After age 30, adults tend to lose 3-8% of their total muscle mass per decade. This rate of decline accelerates after age 60, with adults losing about 1% of total muscle mass per year.

This gradual loss of muscle mass has serious consequences:

  • Increased risk of falls and fractures
  • Reduced quality of life
  • Higher rates of other health problems
  • Earlier mortality

It used to be believed that muscle loss was unavoidable. But research now shows that targeted exercise and lifestyle changes can prevent, slow, or even reverse age-related muscle loss.

1. Resistance Training

Engaging in resistance or strength training is the most effective way to maintain and rebuild muscle mass. Resistance training involves exercising against some form of resistance, whether it’s weights, resistance bands, or your own body weight.

You don’t need access to a gym to do effective resistance training. Simple bodyweight exercises like squats, push-ups, sit-to-stands from a chair, and lunges can be very effective. Weighted exercises like bicep curls, overhead presses, bench presses, and deadlifts are great if you have access to weights.

Aim to do resistance training every day, or at least 5 days per week. Choose compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at once. Complete 2-4 sets of 5-20 repetitions of each exercise, until you feel muscle fatigue at the end of each set. Even just 10 minutes a day of targeted resistance training can prevent muscle loss.

The key is consistency. Make resistance exercise a regular habit, and your muscles will thank you.

2. Choose Compound Exercises

When strength training, choose compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at once. They give you more bang for your buck compared to isolation exercises that only work one muscle group.

For example, the classic bicep curl only trains the biceps muscles in your upper arm. In contrast, the squat works your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, core, and more.

Other great compound exercises are push-ups, overhead presses, deadlifts, and lunges. Avoid wasting time on isolation exercises like bicep curls or tricep extensions. Compound exercises maintain overall muscle mass much more effectively.

3. Weight Bearing Exercise

In addition to strength training, make sure you’re getting enough weight bearing exercise like walking, hiking, jogging, or dancing. Weight bearing exercise forces your muscles to work against gravity while supporting your body weight.

Studies show weight bearing activity is more effective at maintaining muscle mass than non-weight bearing exercise like cycling or swimming. Weight bearing exercise also benefits your bone density.

Aim for at least 5,000-10,000 steps per day, or about 30 minutes of brisk walking. Going up and down stairs and doing housework also counts towards your daily weight bearing activity.

4. Eat Enough Protein

Consuming adequate protein is crucial for maintaining muscle mass. Protein provides the amino acids your body needs to repair and rebuild muscle tissue.

The current RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. However, research suggests older adults may need more to maintain muscle. Aim for 1.2-1.5 grams per kilogram of protein daily.

Good protein sources include meat, fish, dairy, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. Distribute protein intake throughout the day rather than in one big meal. Getting enough protein prevents your body from breaking down muscle for fuel.

5. Stay Active In Retirement

Many adults experience a dramatic drop in activity levels after retirement. The loss of occupational activity plus a more sedentary lifestyle can accelerate muscle loss.

To prevent this, take up a hobby or join programs that keep you physically active. Walking groups, recreational sports leagues, cycling clubs, and exercise classes are great options. Maintain a lifestyle that keeps you on your feet and moving.

6. Take The Stairs Always

Make a habit of choosing the stairs over elevators and escalators. Using stairs is a simple way to incorporate extra resistance exercise and weight bearing activity into your daily routine.

Avoid “two-story shuffle” after moving from a house to a bungalow or apartment. The frequent stair climbing required in multi-level homes provides an important source of activity. Make up for the loss by purposely taking stairs whenever you can.

7. Address Pain Issues Promptly

Untreated injuries and orthopedic issues can severely limit activity levels. Trying to “work through the pain” often makes problems worse.

See a doctor, physiotherapist or athletic therapist promptly if you develop knee, hip, back or other joint pain. Get prescribed exercises to rehabilitate the injury and avoid complications like muscle atrophy. This helps you resume normal activity as quickly as possible.

Staying active is key to maintaining muscle mass. Don’t allow untreated pain or injury sideline you for extended periods.

Muscle Loss: An Inevitable Consequence of Aging

Muscle loss does not have to be an inevitable consequence of aging. Research shows the decline in muscle mass traditionally associated with aging can be prevented—and even reversed—through targeted exercise and lifestyle habits.

Resistance training, weight bearing activity, adequate protein intake, and staying generally active are key to maintaining and rebuilding muscle as you age. Address injuries promptly and keep moving to enjoy strong, functional muscles well into your later years.

What Strategies Are Most Effective for Maintaining Muscle Mass As You Age?

The strategies that seem most important are:

  • Consistency with resistance training and weight bearing exercise. Even just 10-20 minutes per day can be very effective if done regularly.
  • Choosing compound strength exercises over isolation exercises to work multiple muscle groups efficiently. Squats, deadlifts, push-ups, rows, presses are great examples.
  • Getting enough protein intake, especially in the range of 1.2-1.5g per kg of body weight. Spreading intake throughout the day helps maximize muscle protein synthesis.
  • Addressing injuries, joint pain, or mobility issues quickly, as they can severely limit activity levels and accelerate muscle loss if left untreated.
  • Staying generally active with walking, recreation, hobbies and social activities, especially after retirement. The loss of occupational activity can be very detrimental.

The research seems quite clear that staying active and exercising consistently is key. Following a program that incorporates resistance training, weight bearing activity, and adequate protein should help maintain muscle mass and strength during the aging process.

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