The ageing process is a natural path we all travel, and as many can attest it comes with a myriad of changes to our bodies.
One thing that can be a bit worrying as we age is the slow decline in muscle mass and strength, which is called sarcopenia. Such a decline can lead to reduced independence and compromised mobility, ultimately affecting our quality of life.
However, the good news is that there are simple yet effective strategies that can be adopted to counteract this process.
Join Starts at 60 as we delve into the world of maintaining muscle mass in older age, exploring the science behind it and unveiling the practical tactics that can empower you to continue leading an active and independent life.
Before we dive into strategies, it’s crucial to understand the physiological changes that contribute to muscle loss with age.
As we grow older, the loss of muscle mass not only impacts strength but also energy levels, balance, and gait, which can increase the likelihood of injuries and compromise physical abilities and independence.
When it comes to muscle mass there are a number of other important factors to be aware of, some of which include:
While this process “is very individual” and “the speed and extent of ageing varies from person to person”, Master Trainer and Co-Founder of Club Forma, Hayden Thin highlights some of the physical changes someone may experience as their muscle mass declines with age.
“There is degeneration of the nerve cell body as reflected by a decreased number of cells and a change in cell size—this is generally associated with decreased nerve conduction velocity, resulting in slower reaction and movement times,” he explains.
“Cardiac output, or the amount of blood pumped with each beat of the heart, declines, decreasing the efficiency of the heart as a pump.
“Because reflexes and reaction time are slowed there is an increased risk of falling and serious injury occurring, such as fracturing of the hip or other major bones.
“Combined, these factors lead to a reduction in overall strength, reducing the person’s ability to move around freely and perform their activities of daily living, or functional capacity, and mobility of the individual, – especially over the age of 65.
“This inability to move around and use the body on a regular basis reduces the individual’s level of daily movement even further leading to increased degeneration and weakening of the body further speeding up the rate physiological decline. This is referred to a ‘spiral of decline’.”
All of these factors can result in a considerable loss of self-esteem and result in a decline in quality of life, making the need for intervention all the more important.
Maintaining muscle mass in later life is not just a matter of physical appearance, but a fundamental key to preserving independence, mobility, and overall quality of life.
Beyond its physical implications, muscle mass plays a pivotal role in metabolic health, contributing to better glucose regulation and weight management.
Sustaining muscle mass through regular exercise, proper nutrition, and a healthy lifestyle not only supports the body’s structural integrity but also promotes enhanced metabolism, bone health, and mental well-being.
By prioritising muscle maintenance, we can embrace the freedom to move, engage in activities we love, and maintain a sense of autonomy, ultimately fostering a more vibrant and fulfilling life for years to come.
“Almost everything that gets worst with age can be positively influenced with a regular dose of mild- to moderate physical activity and maintaining muscle mass,” Thin says.
“Improvements in muscle mass and strength lead to functional improvements in the ability to perform normal, daily activities more easily as, among other things, strength training improves balance and mobility – reducing the early onset of physiological decline.”
It’s not just about physical improvements, taking care of your muscle health can also bring cognitive benefits.
“Regarding brain health, increased physical activity and motor skills are associated with better cognitive function. People with sarcopenia, or age-related muscle atrophy, are more likely to suffer cognitive decline,” Thin explains.
“Mounting evidence shows that the loss of skeletal muscle mass and function leaves the brain more vulnerable to dysfunction and disease; as a counter to that, exercise improves memory, processing speed, and executive function, especially in older adults.
“Exercise and maintaining muscle mass has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus, even late in life, protecting against age-related loss and improving spatial memory.”
In the pursuit of a fulfilling life in our later years, the importance of maintaining muscle mass to ensure mobility and independence cannot be overstated.
Fortunately, there are a number of simple strategies that can improve muscle mass such as engaging in daily activities that involve movement, such as gardening, brisk walking, or dancing or incorporating resistance bands or light weights into your routine at home or in the gym.
Thin suggests the following simple yet effective exercises that can help maintain muscle mass:
Strengthens the entire lower body and stabilises the trunk.
1. Stand with your hands on the back of your head and your feet shoulder-width apart with your feet turned out slightly to open the hip joint.
2. Lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
3. Pause, then return to the starting position.
Strengthens muscles at the sides of hips and thighs.
1. Stand up straight, directly behind a table or chair, feet slightly apart. Hold onto the table to help keep your balance.
2. Take three seconds to lift your right leg six to twelve inches out to the side. Keep your back and both legs straight. Don’t point your toes outward—keep them facing forward.
3. Hold the position for one second.
4. Take three seconds to lower your leg back to the starting position.
5. Repeat with left leg. Alternate legs, until you have repeated the exercise eight to fifteen times with each leg.
6. Rest, and do another set.
7. Use ankle weights when you are ready to progress.
For strengthening the chest, shoulders, and trunk.
1. Stand up facing the wall so that you are close to it. Place your hands on the wall at chest height and shoulder-width apart.
2. Taking your weight into your hands and keeping your arms bent, step your feet back away from the wall, one at a time until you are leaning at about a 30-degree angle towards the wall.
3. Keep your body rigid by activating your legs, glutes, and core.
4. Then start to push your hands into the wall and straighten your arms to push your body away from the wall to almost upright.
5. Once at the top of the wall push-up position, bend your elbows and lower yourself back towards the wall with control.
6. Repeat the push-up and lowering phases of this exercise for the allotted time.
Calf or heel raises help to build strength in your ankles. Strong ankles are important as they’re the first thing that keeps us upright.
1. In a standing position and with hands on the back of a chair or wall for stability
2. Slowly raise up onto the balls of your feet, with your weight on the big toe and the second toe.
3. Hold for a count of 4 or 5 seconds.
4. Return to standing in a controlled manner and try not to rock.
5. Repeat in controlled fashion for 12-15 times while maintaining good form.
Ensuring you remain independent well into old age doesn’t mean you have to slog away at the gym for hours on end. In fact, a multitude of simple strategies can remarkably improve muscle mass, mobility, and independence.
Getting moving in your day-to-day life, whether it’s tending to your garden, taking a brisk walk, or dancing around, keeps your muscles active and involved.
Ageing may be inevitable, but the decline in muscle mass doesn’t have to be. Armed with these simple yet effective strategies, you can defy the odds, and maintain your muscle mass, strength, and independence well into your golden years.
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.