Muscle aging begins early in life. Your muscles begin to age after the age of 30 and will continue to do so throughout life. In fact, the average person loses about 4% of their muscle mass every decade after the of 30.
How do muscles age? Muscle mass declines, but so does muscle strength. As strength and muscle loss speed up after the age of 50, it can affect how functional and mobile you are, so it’s harder to do the things you once enjoyed. You don’t have the muscle strength or the endurance.
Another consequence that people don’t consider is the way muscle affects body weight. As you lose metabolically active muscle tissue, your resting metabolic rate modestly slows, and you become more prone to weight gain. Plus, insulin sensitivity goes down as you lose muscle and gain body fat. That bodes poorly for metabolic health and your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Fortunately, there are ways to slow the age-related loss of muscle mass. Let’s look at some things you can do from a lifestyle standpoint to slow muscle aging.
“Use it or lose it” isn’t just a silly saying; it’s backed by science! Your muscles will only stay as strong and defined as they need to. If you don’t challenge your muscles by training them against resistance, there’s no reason for them to maintain their current strength or mass. Your body doesn’t like to carry around extra baggage. So, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Strength training, in which you contract muscles against resistance, is the best prescription for reducing age-related muscle wasting, Aerobic training is healthy for your heart, but it doesn’t have the same muscle-preserving benefits as strength training.
You don’t even have to have a rack of weights to build strength. You can do bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, bodyweight squats, and dips and use weighted balls and resistance bands to challenge your muscles, but you’ll get the best results if you use progressive overload by increasing the intensity over time.
There are other perks to working your muscles against resistance. Some studies show doing so may reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even mental health problems such as depression. Plus, weight training can improve your balance by strengthening the stabilizing muscles in your core.
Consume Enough Protein
Protein is comprised of long strands of amino acids, the basic building blocks of muscle. Muscle is in a constant state of turnover where the body breaks down old muscle and rebuilds new. This even happens after a strength-training workout. So, you need to supply your muscles with enough amino acids to build new muscle tissue.
How much protein do you need? A sedentary person should get around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, but if you’re physically active, you may need up to twice that amount. There’s also some evidence that protein requirements are higher after the age of 60 because of a phenomenon called anabolic resistance. Muscles become more resistant to signals that tell them to grow.
If you’re trying to cut back on meat, you can still use vegetarian protein sources such as tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, and whole grains to get your daily protein quota. Vegetables also contain small quantities of protein.
Optimize Your Vitamin D Intake
The best source of vitamin D is exposing your skin to sunlight. If you can’t get daily sun exposure or live too far North to get direct sunlight, vitamin D supplements are available. Most natural food sources, except for fatty fish, mushrooms exposed to sunlight, and eggs are not a good source of vitamin D.
However, some foods, like some yogurt, milk, and breakfast cereal, are fortified with the sunshine vitamin. Not only does vitamin D play a role in bone and immune health, research shows it may slow muscle breakdown and even help with strength gains in response to training.
Don’t Fall Short in Potassium
Potassium is a critical electrolyte that your body requires on a minute-by-minute basis for functions like muscle contraction and a regular heartbeat. However, it also may play a role in more youthful muscles. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that older people who consumed at least 3,500 milligrams daily, the recommended amount, had more youthful muscle than those who didn’t. However, another study showed this benefit is more pronounced in males than females.
How can you add more potassium to your diet? Green, leafy vegetables are an excellent source, but so are all fruits and vegetables. Most people think bananas are the richest source of potassium, but avocados sweet potatoes, black beans, and watermelon have even more potassium than a banana. Think fruits and veggies and you’ll boost your potassium intake.
Get Your Omega-3s
Omega-3s, especially long-chain omega-3s, like those in fatty fish and fish oil, may help muscles stay younger. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory benefits that help counter “inflammaging,” the increase in inflammation that comes with aging. Inflammation damages muscle cells and is partially responsible for sarcopenia, the age-related loss of strength and muscle mass.
Experts point out that omega-3s combined with strength training offers one of the best ways to slow muscle aging. Add fatty fish, such as wild-caught salmon, to your diet twice per week or consider taking a fish oil supplement. If you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, algal oil is a good alternative.
The Bottom Line
Now you know some small steps you can take to slow muscle aging. Keep working your muscles against resistance and make sure you’re getting enough protein, vitamin D, omega-3s, and potassium. It all counts!
- org. “Slowing or reversing muscle loss”
- Dupont J, Dedeyne L, Dalle S, Koppo K, Gielen E. The role of omega-3 in the prevention and treatment of sarcopenia. Aging Clin Exp Res. 2019;31(6):825-836. doi:10.1007/s40520-019-01146-1.
- Lee YJ, Lee M, Wi YM, Cho S, Kim SR. Potassium intake, skeletal muscle mass, and effect modification by sex: data from the 2008-2011 KNHANES. Nutr J. 2020;19(1):93. Published 2020 Aug 29. doi:10.1186/s12937-020-00614-z.
- Ceglia L. Vitamin D and its role in skeletal muscle. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2009;12(6):628-633. doi:10.1097/MCO.0b013e328331c707.
- Hanach NI, McCullough F, Avery A. The Impact of Dairy Protein Intake on Muscle Mass, Muscle Strength, and Physical Performance in Middle-Aged to Older Adults with or without Existing Sarcopenia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Adv Nutr. 2019 Jan 1;10(1):59-69. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmy065. PMID: 30624580; PMCID: PMC6370271.
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