One change both males and females face as they age is the loss of muscle mass and muscle strength. Muscle loss is a fact of life as the years and decades pass, but we can slow the loss by staying physically active and consuming enough protein. You have more control over your health than you think!
When does it start? Losing muscle tissue begins early in life around the mid-30s. That’s when we see a slow, gradual loss of muscle strength and muscle size. The decline in muscle that keeps us strong and keeps the metabolism percolating continues throughout adulthood and speeds up in women after menopause. This unfortunate sequence of events assumes that you don’t work your muscles against resistance, the best way to hold on to your muscle. If you do, the loss will be far less. In fact, some studies show that master’s athletes have muscles more like individuals 30 years younger.
Muscles also change in quality with age. You don’t hear as much about the loss of muscle quality that comes with advancing age, but science confirms that it helps. As a muscle ages, it accumulates more fat. As fat builds up inside a muscle, the muscle fibers lose some of their ability to generate force. In fact, research shows that loss of strength exceeds the loss of muscle tissue in the elderly by up to three-fold. The age-induced infiltration of fat makes the muscle less capable of generating force, and we become weaker.
Changes happen at the cellular level too. Inside each muscle cell are tiny organelles called mitochondria. It’s the job of these powerhouses to make ATP, the energy source muscle use to contract. As we age, the mitochondria decline along with us. When damage to these powerhouse structures accumulates, muscles become less efficient at generating force and we become weaker. Plus, healthy mitochondria are important for metabolic health. Therefore, it’s not surprising that damage to muscle mitochondria may play a role in insulin resistance and aging.
Gender and Muscle Aging
Men have more muscle relative to women. In fact, a study showed that men have an average of 26 more pounds of muscle on their body relative to women. In part, this explains the strength differential between men and women. Strength discrepancies are most apparent in the upper body where women have around 52% of the strength of a man. In the lower body, women are 66% as strong as men. So, men start out with a strength advantage, but what happens with age? Do men lose muscle at the same rate as women?
Studies show that women lose muscle mass at a slower rate than men. In fact, older women have more active muscle protein synthesis taking place throughout the day relative to men. However, the muscle cells of men are more responsive to a protein meal than are a woman’s muscle cells. That women have more active and consistent muscle protein synthesis throughout the day may explain the slower decline in muscle mass. Yet women also have less total muscle mass than men to begin with. Therefore, women can lose functionality faster than a man if they don’t exercise and consume enough protein.
Studies also show that whether you’re male or female, you must work harder than a younger person to hold on to your muscle mass and strength. In one study that compared muscle maintenance in younger and older people, younger adults lost little muscle or strength when they scaled back their workouts after they had spent months to build muscle. However, older adults suffered significant declines in muscle mass when they lightened up on their training.
This suggests that you have to strength train harder and do a sufficient volume to maintain muscle later in life. You can’t “retire” from strength training or lift little, pink weights! You also want to avoid, as much as possible, taking prolonged breaks from exercise, as older people have a harder time regaining the muscle they lost from being sedentary. It’s also most beneficial to start strength training early in life and keep doing it every decade.
It’s a Lifelong Commitment
Strength training is an investment in your future health. Loss of muscle mass and strength leads to frailty, but it also contributes to metabolic problems like type 2 diabetes. Having more muscle and less body favorable helps your body better handle glucose. In fact, a study in rats shows that strength training improves insulin sensitivity by boosting the level of a protein called APPL1 that helps regulate blood sugar. Also, studies find that dynamic resistance training boosts insulin sensitivity independently of weight loss.
Even if you’re of normal body weight or below your ideal body weight, you still need strength training! Some older people of normal or low body weight experience substantial muscle loss, not to mention the loss of bone mass. Everyone, male or female, young or old, needs to strength train throughout life.
In fact, strength training is just as important, if not more so, than aerobic exercise. So, don’t assume that because you walk every day that you’re getting all the exercise you need. Walking doesn’t maintain upper body or core muscle mass and strength. Plus, your muscles adapt to walking and the exercise becomes less of a challenge. Unless you tackle hills or sprint for portions of a walk your muscles won’t get the added stimulation they need to become stronger. Too often, people use walking as their only form of exercise, but you need more.
Instead, make sure you’re strength training by doing a variety of compound exercises combined with lesser amounts of isolation exercises to stay strong and maintain muscle throughout your life.
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