Just wait until you get older, you’ll see…
Reading this sentence means that you fit into one of two distinct categories, the “wait until’ or the ‘older’. What exactly you are waiting for, or predicting, varies depending on the conversation but without fail there is a firm delineation between before and after ‘older’. As a kid, it might have applied to watching an R rated movie or driving a car, or having a drink, or a whole host of other things that are reserved for ‘older’.
In this article, we’re examining older as it pertains to muscle and strength atrophy, which unfortunately for all of us is a very real and eventual thing. So much so that science has given it a name, Sarcopenia, and invested significant resources into studying the condition and its characteristics.
So what is this Sarcopenia that waits on the far side of ‘older’?
Sarcopenia’s present definition involves the loss of muscle mass, strength and functional quality. Distilled. our bodies weaken, and our muscles struggle to do the same tasks we performed effortlessly a few years ago. It becomes a slow march towards frailty, anyone who has watched a grandparent decline can relate. I remember coming home for Thanksgiving and Christmas in the same year, the shift in my Grandmother’s robustness between holidays was terrifying, from swift and mobile to labored and unsteady in a few months.
It seems unfair that we spend the first 3 decades of our life building muscle and becoming stronger, until the magical age of thirty when muscle mass, strength, and power starts to decline because..well..you’re now old. The rate of decline varies between studies but somewhere between a 3 – 8 percent decrease per decade can be expected, with a notable increase in frailty around age 70. The decrease is highest in sedentary individuals, specifically males who decline at a rate that is twice as high as women but in a much more gradual fashion, where women tend to see a steep decline post menopause. Think sand slowly slipping through your fingers versus the bottom of the bucket dropping our, they both suck.
Unfortunately, the science people I spoke of earlier still do not know, with 100 percent certainty what causes Sarcopenia. As with everything related to our health it is likely a combination of genetics, lifestyle, diet, smoking, inactivity, and hormone levels. Each factor contributes differently but they all play a role.
While the why may still evade us we do know what we can do to decrease the rate of decline, ultimately we are all going to die, a sobering thought for this Friday read, but how we spend those years can range greatly.
- Fight Stagnation – We have been brainwashed into believing that aging is an excuse to slowly slide into sloth and inactivity. We don’t play sports anymore, we watch our kids, or grandkids running around on the field, skating around the rink and having all manner of fun while we sit at home on the couch, waiting to sit in our car, to drive to the venue to sit for an hour before doing it all in reverse. The single most important thing we can do to decrease the rate of atrophy (muscle wasting) is changing our mindset. Get back in touch with our body and the wonderful ways that it can more. I’m telling you to peel your socks off and start tai chi in the park, although that is a great idea! Just move, join a league or gym of any kind, walk more, garden, split wood the old way – with an ax. Hike up hills with your kids on your back, race them down, refuse to be still for two days in a row. If you haven’t crested the ‘older’ hill yet all the better, start now and make movement and activity a staple in your life. You don’t need to become a professional athlete or climb Kilimanjaro but making small and consistent changes daily reinforces the positive choices and will delay the slide into frailty.
- Protein – This is not a free pass to begin ordering the 48 oz porterhouse twice a week, but chances are you will need to up your protein intake. We have discussed the importance of protein ad nauseam, so I’ll keep it short. Muscles are wasting and need to be maintained and rebuilt. Muscles require amino acids for construction. Amino acids are the basis of protein and will help decrease atrophy. As always, aim for high-quality lean protein options – grass-fed beef, chicken, fish etc. If you choose to consume protein through vegetarian options be aware of the number of carbohydrates you are consuming simultaneously, your metabolism will also decrease with age and wolfing down the same number of calories can lead to gains, but not the sort you are hoping for. As a general guideline, aim for 25-30 grams of protein per meal, 3-4 times a day.
- Hormone Levels – This is an area of health that has seen a huge spike in interest over the last few years, and justifiably so, as we are struggling to deal with more external influencers than ever before. Hormonal imbalances wreak havoc on our system, low levels of Testosterone in men and Estrogen in women will compound the problems associated with Sarcopenia. It is worthwhile having your MD or Naturopathic doctor test your hormonal levels, especially if you have experienced secondary symptoms outside of muscle loss. If things are out of balance there are several strategies for returning to homeostasis but it may be time for some lifestyle changes. Alcohol, caffeine, sleep, and stress all heavily contribute to your stress and hormonal levels and may need to be monitored, decreased, or avoided altogether for a time.
- Lift Weights – Last but not least, it’s time for some resistance training. We can’t write an article about muscle loss without talking about the most effective way to build muscle, picking moderate to heavy things up and putting them down. What form that training takes is up to you, out in the yard squatting logs and pressing rocks, or your local personal trainer. What is important is that you follow the principals of progressive resistance, our body needs an challenging load to grow, gradually increasing the weight as your strength increases. Strength training really is fantastic for long-term health, both for avoiding muscle atrophy and decreasing the risk of bone-related conditions such as osteoporosis. Again, professional weightlifting status is not required! Aim for 2-3 days of full body training involving major muscles groups – squat, lunge, push, pull – at a 7-8 out of 10 difficulty. We discussed our top 3 exercises that everyone should incorporate into their weight lifting routines here if you need some ideas.