Why protein and muscle strength are key for over-65s

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It’s no secret that a good diet and regular physical activity are key to tip-top health, but our nutritional and exercise needs change as we age.

Our muscles don’t regenerate as quickly as we age, which can mean the amount of muscle we have decreases and muscle function deteriorates. This in turn can reduce our strength, impair our mobility and balance and, ultimately, impact our ability to lead an active, independent life.

That’s because research shows that when we lose our strength and balance, we have an increased risk of falls, are less able to undertake normal daily tasks such as cleaning or shopping, and are more likely to give up social, sporting and other activities.

Professor Robin Daly, the chair of exercise and ageing at Deakin University, says there are two key ways to head off the loss of muscle and thus strength: eat more protein and do functional and challenging strengthening exercises.

“Older people need more protein in their diet than a younger person to help them maintain their muscle mass, which is important for an active and independent life,” he says.

That’s because protein is the building block for muscle, Daly explains.

“If you have insufficient protein and don’t do enough strengthening exercise you can progressively lose muscle over time,” he adds.

But rather than just hitting the gym or going on a protein binge, Daly says it’s a combination of the two that produces the best results in rebuilding and maintaining muscle mass, size and strength.

“People tend to be a little scared of strengthening or resistance training,” he says. “But once they do it and realise they can do it, the improvements they get are rapid and quite remarkable.”

He says strengthening exercises can be as simple as performing repeat sit-and-stands from a chair – where you sit down and stand back up again 10 times – repetitive forward or sideways lunges, or standing on one leg or heel-to-toe steps to improve your balance.

Experts recommend doing these exercises two or three times a week for the best results.

“You can even do it while you’re undertaking other tasks, such as waiting for the kettle to boil or watching TV,” Daly says. “The key thing is it must be challenging and it must be progressive, so it’s must get a bit more difficult over time.”

As well as strengthening exercises, spreading protein intake over the day by having at least two protein-rich meals each day is recommended.

Protein is found in a range of foods, including red meat, fish, chicken, dairy, eggs, legumes and nuts, and is a vital ingredient for a healthy, balanced diet.

As an added benefit, most protein sources also contain important vitamins and nutrients, such as calcium, that help strengthen bones to reduce the risk of fracture. To get enough calcium, three to four serves of dairy foods a day, which also contain good-quality protein, are recommended.

Choosing different types of protein over the week is the best way to ensure you’re getting sufficient variety and therefore a range of nutrients in your diet.

Lean red meat is an excellent source of protein and is recommended three to four times a week; fish twice a week for omega-3; and legumes provide dietary fibre important for gut health. 

These added nutrients contribute to our overall health.

Daly emphasises that increasing your protein intake from a range of sources, combined with regular muscle-strengthening exercises, is the best way to optimise muscle health and ensure quality of life in later years.

“We know that maintaining your muscle strength, mass and function will lead to improved quality of life, which is related to maintaining your independence for longer in future,” he says.

How much protein do you eat every day? How often do you exercise?

This information has been provided with the assistance of Meat & Livestock Australia. Click below for more healthy living tips for the over-65s.