The Importance of Muscle Mass as We Age

It is a well-documented fact that we can lose an average 5% of our muscle mass every ten years over the age of 35 unless we make a conscious effort to retain and build muscle mass.

Historically our bodies were designed as hunter-gatherers to be strong and able until about the age of 35 when the younger generation would have reached adulthood and taken over the main responsibility. It seems that our bodies still follow that inherent pattern and start to lose muscle mass from then on.

Unfortunately when we lose muscle, we tend to replace it with fat. In order to simply retain our current weight as we reach middle age, we need to lower our calorific intake by 150-450 calories per day or work hard on building muscle mass to avoid the dreaded middle-age spread.

Lean body mass consists of biologically active tissue including muscle, bone, nerve and vital organ tissue. These have a greater calorie-burning capacity than fat tissue. When we lose lean body mass (LBM) we unfortunately lose the most active tissue. This changes our metabolism which naturally declines with age anyway. Loss of lean body tissue, known as sarcopenia, also causes a loss of muscle strength which declines by 8-16% per decade after the age of 50. The combined loss of muscle power and strength can eventually lead to greater difficulty in performing simple everyday task such as climbing stairs, walking or getting up from a chair. The loss of strength also increases the chance of injury from falling.

Older bodies have been found to be less efficient at building muscle than younger people and researchers also noted that blood flow in the legs also decreased with age, depriving the muscle of nutrients. A study by researchers at Nottingham University England found that by introducing three exercise sessions per week for 20 weeks, blood flow to the legs increased and muscle wasting was reversed.

Similar research at Tufts University found that the two main biomarkers of age were muscle mass and strength. Maintaining muscle as we age can significantly improve our physiology, improving overall health and functionality. The benefits of maintaining muscle mass also mean a faster metabolism which burns more calories.

How to Increase Muscle Mass

Bodies of all ages need resistance exercises to build muscle. This means introducing a form of exercise such as weight lifting which puts muscles under stress, forcing them to adapt to that stress. This can take the form of toning exercises with videos at home, weight lifting at home or at the gym or joining a non-aerobic class for exercise. This training needs to be done 3-5 times a week for 30-40 minutes per session.

To build muscle tissue the body also needs protein which should be included at every meal. An egg for breakfast; lean meat, fish or cottage cheese for lunch and meat as part of the main meal will ensure the body has the building blocks necessary to build muscle. Adequate restful sleep is also required.

It is never too late to build muscle mass and with age it can increase walking speed, leg strength and endurance, ensuring more flexibility and generally better overall health.

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