Maintaining Muscle Mass with Age

 “Vigorous aerobic activity, not just muscle strengthening exercise, helps preserve muscle mass during aging” – Martha Savaria Morris, PhD, Tufts Nutrition Human Nutrition Center

Muscle mass often decreases with age, and although some of this may be unavoidable, certainly a lot of it isn’t. For example, I carry more muscle mass at 50 than I did at 20, but my father (who does work out with weights) carries far less at 90 years of age then he did previously. I doubt I will carry the same muscle mass if I am blessed to live to 90, and I probably will not be deadlifting over 300 pounds either at that age.

Readers of this site are no doubt aware of all of the positive effects, both physical and mental, of building and maintaining muscle, and as one ages, muscles take on a new and critical role.

  • Maintaining (or building) muscle mass makes independence more likely. No one likes the idea of moving into assisted living, of needing help with daily tasks, of not being able to take care of themselves. Loss muscle mass makes independence less likely.
  • Increased likelihood and severity of falls is also associated with aging and loss of muscle mass. A broken hip at 70 years of age or younger merely sucks for the relatively healthy. At 80 and beyond full recovery often does not occur, and there is often “increased mortality.”

Medical researchers have found what bodybuilders have always known about building muscle, basically that resistance exercises like lifting weights and consuming adequate protein helps build and maintain muscle. They have also found that aerobic activity helps maintain muscle mass during aging. These results were found by the Tufts Nutrition Human Nutrition Center and recently published in the British Journal of Nutrition. The study analyzed 2425 participants over the age of 50 for a 4 year period.

Of course no one should start (or restart) an exercise program without consulting a doctor, although people do every day. Certainly consulting a doctor (which I DO recommend) is increasingly important as one ages. And of course one starts with mild exercise and works up to more vigorous exercise as at any age.

My father began lifting in his 80s and has gotten significant and concrete medical benefits. You absolutely can start or restart later in life (with your doctor’s permission).

The Tufts study stressed the importance of high quality protein intake, and singled out meat, poultry, fish, and soy as complete sources of protein, and suggested low fat cuts of meat. No surprises here.

What is surprising is that vigorous aerobic activities, those that lasted 10 minutes of longer and caused heavy breathing, increased heart rate, and/or heavy sweating, are associated with a higher muscle mass. The health benefits of aerobic exercise are no surprise, but to many of us including myself, but the effect on muscle mass is surprising.

“Muscle strengthening, aerobic activities, and good dietary protein may help slow age-related declines in muscle mass and strength.”  –Duke Medicine Health News

Although certainly not conclusive, it is interesting that those combining vigorous aerobic activities with high intakes of beef or pork achieved the most muscle mass!

6 thoughts on “Maintaining Muscle Mass with Age”

  1. The aerobic exercise component is surprising, but perhaps shouldn’t be. The body is a whole and should be treated as one.

    I’m fairly young, in my 30s, but do think that doing some aerobic exercise does help me have a healthy and attractive amount of muscle. No hard stats, but I’m pretty sure, and anyways know it is better for me.

  2. I saw the same study in some health newsletter my father gets. I was also somewhat surprised, but since I (and my father in his 80s) are big believers in all kinds of exercise we already comply with the suggestions!

    Fit is simply healthy

  3. As a beginner, you must be careful about getting over confident and taking on more
    that your body is ready for. There will likely be times whenever you won’t
    be able to do it nevertheless it should be your aim. By recruiting multiple muscle groups your body will stimulate a greater release of muscle
    building hormones than if you did isolation exercises
    which only target single muscles.

  4. At 44 I’m in the best shape of my life – it DOES take way more work than when I was in my 20s, but it’s well worth it to look AND feel awesome!

  5. I am 72 years old, work 75 hours every week – meat cutter, logger, horse trainer and have not taken a day off for so long that I can’t remember when. Lots of vitamins, lots of protein, lots of raw fruit and vegetables. Plus 8 hours of sleep every night. Wouldn’t change a thing.


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