How to maintain muscle as you age (and why it matters)

Strength training is vital to maintain muscle mass and promote wellness as you age. Here are some age-defying tips for staying strong and fit through the years.

It’s no secret that it’s harder to maintain muscle as we get older, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it.

Sarcopenia, the age-related progressive loss of muscle mass and strength, is primarily caused by getting older, but other contributing factors include physical inactivity and poor diet.

Age-related decline in muscle mass and strength is pretty relentless, Pollinate Health director and principal physiotherapist Jimmy Goulis says.

“Generally, we do pretty well in our 30s and 40s, but then our muscle mass and strength tend to fall when we get into our 50s,” Jimmy says.

Both men and women will see age-related decline, though this can be at different rates.

Men tend to have a higher starting point in muscle mass and strength while, for women, menopause can have a dramatic effect on reducing bone density and muscle mass, Jimmy explains.

Why is strength training important as we age?

A Mexican study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging in 2019 looked at the effects of a resistance training program on sarcopenia and the muscle strength and physical performance of 19 elderly people in a nursing home.

The program improved muscle strength and physical performance and decreased severe sarcopenia.

“One of the most important things we can do for our health — so that we don’t only live long but also live well — is to take up some form of strength training,” Jimmy says.

Fitness Energy founder and fitness director Jane Kilkenny says strength training is beneficial beyond just having us look our best.

“Strength training is a key factor in maintaining our function as we get older, particularly when it comes to overall strength, balance and bone density,” Jane says.

“It also plays a huge role in managing our body composition, helping to keep our body fat levels under control.”

A round of bench presses or deadlifts at the gym, pull-ups or dips at the park, and squats or lunges at home during a television ad break are all good forms of strength (resistance) training.

The role of nutrition in muscle growth and repair

Jane says nutrition plays a part in your recovery from training.

“A combination of carbs and protein are best post-exercise, within 30 to 45 minutes,” she advises.

Protein is an important factor for muscle growth and repair.

An analysis of studies, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2022, concluded older adults with sarcopenia consumed significantly less protein than their non-sarcopenic counterparts.

Meanwhile, a paper in Nutrients journal in 2020 reported that selenium and magnesium appear to have an effect on physical and muscle performance in older people, and omega-3 fatty acids can help preserve muscle mass and protect against normal decline.

It’s never too late to start building muscle mass

As it’s difficult to build muscle when you’re already frail, we should ideally build muscle mass and strength in our 40s, 50s and 60s, Jimmy advises.

“We can start planning for our older years and think about what we want to do, because everyone has different goals,” he says.

“Some people want to go hiking or keep gardening; others just want to be able to get out of a chair without difficulty.

“A targeted strength program will help people achieve these (goals) in their twilight years.”

He says by banking that muscle mass and strength at an earlier age, when the decline happens, it will be from a higher starting point.

“But it’s never too late — the biggest improvement happens when we go from nothing to something.”

Jane agrees that all is not lost if you have not lifted a barbell or done a set of squats until now — the main thing is to get started.

“Your body will continue to adapt when the right stimulation is applied, so the strength and bone density benefits provide protection well into our senior years and help prevent falls,” she says.

How to maintain muscle mass as you age

Regular strength training — two to three sessions a week — is recommended by Jane to build and maintain muscle.

“The type of training will vary slightly depending on your goals, and it’s important to also have variety and varying intensities in your training,” she says.

“Consistency and commitment will have the biggest impact on your outcomes. There’s no reason why we can’t lift significant loads as we get older, provided that the program design is specific for your individual needs and current capabilities.”

Jane adds it’s always a good idea to get professional guidance from a qualified trainer or coach, “to ensure you’re getting the most out of your training”.

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Written by Samantha Allemann.