Build Muscle to Fight Sarcopenia and Osteoporosis

couple using exercise bands
March 11, 2015 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

There are many benefits to growing older. You’re wiser and more comfortable in your own skin. And you can soak in the many joys of grandchildren and retirement.

Don’t get me wrong. I know it’s not always sunshine and roses. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t hear from at least one of my patients about some type of ache or pain, whether it’s arthritis, bursitis, or general soreness from overexertion.

Unfortunately, the repercussions of pushing yourself too hard are far worse at the age of 60 than at 25. But that doesn’t mean you should stop all exercise or physical activity. Quite the opposite, in fact.

It may seem counterintuitive, but exercise can actually fight the effects of aging. For that reason, many doctors tell their senior patients to “stay active” by walking, dancing, playing tennis, and so on.

While all of these workouts provide excellent cardiovascular benefits, I find that many adults (and their physicians) overlook strength training. It’s almost as if they fall into the mindset that, after a certain age, you don’t need to lift weights or build muscle because you’re not trying to win a bikini contest or bodybuilding competition.

Aesthetics aside, building and maintaining muscle mass actually becomes more important with age. Let me tell you why.

Age-Related Muscle Loss

Up until your 30s, your muscles grow in size and strength. However, by middle age, muscles mass starts to decline. By some estimates, inactive individuals can lose as much as five percent of their muscle mass every decade after age 30!

Experts refer to this age-related muscle deterioration as sarcopenia. As the condition escalates, it puts seniors at risk of falls, fractures, and various other physical problems.

As you know, muscles are critical in helping us operate day to day—everything from standing up and moving around to blinking and breathing. But many people don’t realize that muscles have other equally significant functions, including boosting immunity and preventing disease.

Since it’s active metabolic tissue, muscle constantly consumes energy in the form of glucose, which helps regulate blood sugar and prevent and control diabetes.

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In addition, your muscles serve as the main storage unit for important amino acids such as arginine and cysteine. These and other amino acids play a big role in the production of infection-fighting lymphocytes (including natural killer cells and T cells) and antibodies. So the more muscle tissue you have, the greater your reserve of amino acids and the more resilient your immune system tends to be.

It’s probably no coincidence at as we age and our muscles deteriorate, risk of diabetes and other diseases rise, while our immunity takes a nosedive.

Build Muscle at Any Age

While aerobic exercise supports heart health and reduces body fat, the only way to increase lean muscle mass is to engage in some form of strength or resistance training at least two or three days a week.

Research shows that, in addition to the benefits I discussed earlier, strength training in your later years can preserve bone density and lower the risk of osteoporosis, prevent osteoarthritis, improve sleep quality, and reduce depression.

I know that the idea of building muscle can seem daunting. But it doesn’t have to be. You don’t need to lift heavy dumbbells or barbells, or figure out how to use intimidating machines at the gym…unless you want to. You can start with 3- or 5-lb. hand weights and move up from there. (Even unopened soup cans make great “beginner weights!”)

If free weights don’t appeal to you, or you don’t have the knowledge or experience to use them, try resistance bands. Bands allow you to keep constant tension, working the muscle harder (even though it may not feel like it at the time).

Finally, you can boost muscle mass the “old fashioned” way by doing bodyweight exercises. These include pushups, wall sits, squats, lunges, planks, tricep dips, and glute bridges. None of these movements require any special equipment…just some determination!

A word of caution: If you’ve never done any type of strength or resistance training, I recommend hiring an experienced fitness trainer for at least a few sessions. They can teach proper technique so that you avoid injury. You may also benefit from a tailored training program.

You also don’t have to jump right into a 3-day a week regimen. Start slow and build from there.

Remember, the goal here is not necessarily to develop six-pack abs. (Although if you do, wonderful!) Your objective should be to achieve the best health possible. Preventing sarcopenia by boosting your strength and muscle mass is, hands down, the most effective and cheapest way to do that.

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