Tick tock, tick tock… time is always ticking away, and for our bodies, that means aging and the loss of muscle strength and function. Now research sheds light on how exercise can slow the clock on muscle aging, providing new insights into how you can maintain your strength and mobility as you grow older.
As you age, your muscles lose strength and mass, which can lead to various health issues, such as joint pain and a decrease in mobility. On average, adults who do not engage in regular strength training can lose 4 to 6 pounds of muscle per decade. That’s a lot of muscle loss! It’s discouraging, but there’s a lot you can do from a lifestyle standpoint to slow this process and stay fit and functional throughout life.
Aging and the Problem of Sarcopenia
The loss of muscle mass and strength as we age is called sarcopenia. It is a natural part of the aging process and affects everyone to some degree. Scientists don’t completely understand what causes sarcopenia, but they believe it’s a combination of factors, including changes in hormones, reduced physical activity, and poor nutrition.
Muscles require physical activity to maintain their strength and mass. When you don’t use a muscle, it gets smaller and weaker. With age, we tend to become less active, which can accelerate muscle loss. Here’s the good news! Research suggests that exercise can slow the process of aging and help preserve muscle strength and function.
Not only can regular exercise help build muscle strength, but it can increase your flexibility, improve balance and coordination, and even alleviate joint pain. As muscles lose strength and mass, it increases the risk of various health issues, including metabolic health issues, like insulin resistance. However, recent research suggests that exercise can help reverse this process and turn back the clock in aging muscles.
How Exercise Boosts Muscle Health and Function
Exercise can help reverse aging in muscles by promoting the growth of new muscle cells and enhancing the function of existing cells. When we engage in exercise, we create micro-tears in our muscle fibers. The body responds to these micro-tears by producing new muscle cells to repair the damage. This process, known as muscle hypertrophy, increases muscle thickness and strength.
Exercise also improves the function of existing muscle cells by increasing the production of mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cells. Mitochondria are responsible for producing the energy that our cells need to function. With age, the number and function of mitochondria in our cells decline, which can lead to muscle weakness, fatigue, and loss of stamina. However, regular exercise can help to increase the number and function of mitochondria in our cells, which can help to reverse the effects of aging on muscles.
What a New Study Shows about Exercise and Muscle Aging
But what’s occurring at a deeper level, at the level of your genes when you exercise? According to a new study, exercise may slow muscle aging at the genetic level. Epigenetics is the study of chemical changes that affect how your genes are expressed. And here’s something fascinating: certain proteins, called transcription factors, switch specific genes on or off that affect muscle aging.
A scientist named Dr. Shinya Yamanaka earned the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2012 for discovering four transcription factors that can reverse the aging of mature cells. These four factors – Oct3/4, Klf4, Sox2, and Myc, or OKSM for short – have the potential to unlock a new world of regenerative medicine.
According to a recent study, at least one of these transcription factors may affect muscle aging Researchers found that exercise can boost the expression of Myc – one of the Yamanaka factors – to a greater extent than the other three factors. This means exercise may help reprogram muscle fibers to a more youthful state by ramping up the genes that make these factors.
The researchers carried out the study on mice that were equivalent in age to humans in their early 70s. For the first week, the mice had access to an unweighted exercise wheel, and then over the next 8 weeks, the wheel got progressively heavier as magnetic weights were attached to it. The results are exciting and suggest that regular exercise could help keep our muscles young and flexible.
Types of Exercise for Muscle Aging
The best type of exercise to boost muscle growth and build strength to age-proof your muscles is resistance training. Exercises that focus on large muscle groups and work multiple muscle groups at the same time build muscle strength most efficiently. Think deadlifts and squats.
But that’s not the only type of training you should include in your anti-aging fitness routine. Functional training improves overall physical function and prevents falls in older adults. Functional movements are those that mimic everyday movements, such as squatting and lifting, to improve overall strength and mobility.
Also, high-intensity interval training is another form of exercise with muscle anti-aging benefits. HIIT is a type of exercise that involves short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by periods of rest. This type of exercise is effective in reversing the effects of aging on muscles.
It’s also helpful to include endurance exercises in your muscle anti-aging workouts. Endurance training, also known as aerobic exercise, is a type of exercise that involves continuous movement of large muscle groups, such as running, cycling, or swimming. Aerobic exercise helps improve cardiovascular health and can also help to reverse the effects of aging on muscles by boosting the density of mitochondria in muscle cells.
Exercise can be a powerful tool in reversing the effects of aging on muscles. Regular physical activity, particularly strength training, promotes the growth of new muscle cells and improves the function of existing cells. By incorporating resistance training, HIIT, and endurance training into your exercise routine, you can turn back the clock on aging muscles and improve your overall health and well-being.
- Jones RG, Dimet‐Wiley A, Haghani A, et al. A molecular signature defining exercise adaptation with aging and in vivo partial reprogramming in skeletal muscle. The Journal of Physiology. 2023;601(4):763-782. doi:https://doi.org/10.1113/jp283836.
- https://www.facebook.com/NIHAging. How can strength training build healthier bodies as we age? National Institute on Aging. Published June 30, 2022. Accessed February 18, 2023. https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/how-can-strength-training-build-healthier-bodies-we-age
- “Mayo Clinic discovers high-intensity aerobic training can reverse aging ….” 10 Mar. 2017, https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-discovers-high-intensity-aerobic-training-can-reverse-aging-processes-in-adults/.
- “Best anti-ageing exercise is high intensity interval training.” 07 Mar. 2017, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2123825-best-anti-ageing-exercise-is-high-intensity-interval-training/.