Ester column: Aging and muscle mass

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 21, 2011

Q: I notice the older I get, the more muscles I seem to lose. Is that because I am a female and do I need to go heavy weights to get my strength back?
A: “Just” getting older makes you lose muscle mass when you don’t lift any weights. Studies have shown that after the age of 40, most people lose about 1 percent of their muscle mass each year (yikes!) if they do not lift any weights. Of course, the obvious effect is losing strength. Fatigue sets in faster, and it is harder to do the things you once were able to do.
With weakness, even walking and other activities become more difficult to do which starts the vicious cycle of not doing them at all. That, in turn, may cause balance difficulties and an increased risk of falling. Did I depress you already? I don’t mean to, but these are the facts. There is hope, of course.
Many studies have shown that muscle building exercises can stop all these effects or even reverse them, no matter how old you are. In one study, they found that nursing home residents with an average age of 87 years old tripled their muscle strength after only 10 weeks of strength training and stair climbing. They also increased the size of the muscle by 10 percent. Some of them regained the ability to walk without canes and to perform tasks without assistance. I have seen this personally in my many years of being a trainer.
The older and frailer a person, the more important exercise becomes. Weight lifting, according to studies, is one of the most important activities an older adult should pursue to stay healthy. When you look at all the facts, the older adults improve the most from strength training when you look at all the age groups.
The American College of Medicine has revised its fitness guidelines for older adults.
It recommends that adults 50 and older work out with weights two to three times a week. The National Institute of aging also recommends weight lifting and cardio exercise for the older adults. You are never too old. You do want to check with your doctor before you start any exercise program and communicate that you would like to start a strength training program.
There are certain limitations with some health conditions, but I have never heard a doctor say you can not exercise. When you are ready to start check the following:
• Use experienced and trained staff
• Is the equipment easy to use (and adjust)
• Are their classes and programs available for the older adults (we take Silver Sneakers)
• How is the atmosphere? (How does it feel to you?)
• How accessible are the staff members?
• Are there other older adults working out there?
If you have not started a strength training program I hope you start one now. Don’t wait until tomorrow because tomorrow is always one day away.
Ester H Marsh ACSM Cpt