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Maintaining Your Muscle Strength As You Age

Sarcopenia, a dramatic loss in muscle mass and strength as you age, is pervasive in older adults. But it doesn’t have to be! Learn how nutrition, exercise and a little-known compound can help you stay strong—no matter how many candles are on your birthday cake.

Feb 5 2016

You don’t have to be a powerlifter—or just vying for 20-inch biceps—to prioritize muscle mass and strength. And, it turns out, you shouldn’t. Ignoring your muscle health is one reason why about 45 percent of older adults in the U.S. experience muscle loss as they age, according to research from the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

Called sarcopenia, muscle atrophy can begin as early as your 40s and can reduce your strength, energy and mobility, as well as increase the risk of falls, illness and poor health. All of these conditions can be to blame for disabilities in later life, according to Suzette Pereira, PhD, a research fellow specializing in muscle health with Abbott.

While as you age, hormonal changes can contribute to how your body builds and stores muscle, most cases of sarcopenia are linked to poor nutrition as well as inactivity—whether it’s due to a lack of exercise or to hospitalization and existing health issues, she says. In fact, in one study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism , healthy adults who were inactive lost 2 percent of their lean leg mass over the course of 28 days. Meanwhile, in another study of healthy elders patients lost up to 10 percent of their lean leg mass—and in just 10 days.

“Aging is natural, but losing muscle is not,” Pereira says.
 

Infographic: Losing Muscle Due to Inactivity and Hospitalization
 

Keeping muscle strength

 

Here are four ways to stay strong—whatever your age:

  1. Eat More Protein: Every muscle in your body is made up of protein. But as you get older, your body requires more protein to build the same amount of muscle, since the body becomes less efficient at processing protein, according to research published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. Incorporate protein-rich foods like fish, lean meats, eggs, quinoa, beans and protein shakes in every meal and snack. Also, watch your vitamin D levels. Lower levels can affect muscle strength.

  2. Add Weights to Your Workouts: If a sedentary lifestyle is the cause of muscle loss, strength training is the solution, according to the National Institutes of Health. Every time you lift, press or pull a weight, you create microscopic tears in your muscles. Your body then responds with signals to repair your muscles—and then some. The result: You come back to your next workout, as well as everyday tasks, with improved muscle mass and strength.

  3. Do Some Aerobic Exercise
    While it’s not known for bulking you up, aerobic exercise can help keep your muscles healthy and your heart strong through the years, according to a 2010 review published in Clinical Interventions on Aging. Pereira recommends performing aerobic exercise—such as swimming, walking and running or even gardening—between 30 and 60 minutes a few times a week to keep your muscles in tip-top shape.

  4. Up Your Levels of HMB 
    You probably haven’t heard of HMB, also known as beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate, but it’s a natural compound that’s vital to your muscle health. Your body produces it when it breaks down leucine, an amino acid that comes from protein-rich foods. HMB is also naturally produced in foods such as avocado, grapefruit and catfish. HMB tells your body to preserve your existing muscle cells, especially when your body is under stress that can cause muscle loss. It also promotes additional muscle growth and encourages faster post-exercise muscle recovery after those strength and aerobic sweat sessions. So important is HMB that in one 2013 study, Abbott researchers found that HMB supplements can help older adults prevent muscle loss while on periods of bed rest lasting up to 10 days. And in another study in Experimental Gerontology, HMB in combination with eight weeks of resistance training significantly improved patients’ muscle strength.
     

Aging is natural but losing muscle is not. The good news is you can help prevent muscle loss. As always, talk to your doctor before starting any supplements or dietary changes.