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Graceful Ageing: Tips to Counter Age-Related Muscle Loss

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Graceful Ageing: Tips to Counter Age-Related Muscle Loss

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Graceful Ageing: Tips to Counter Age-Related Muscle Loss

We experience a lot of physical and mental changes as we grow older, but one of the most insidious of these changes is a common condition called sarcopenia (from the Greek roots sarx “flesh” and penia “poverty”), or age-related loss of skeletal muscle mass.

Our body has three types of muscle tissue:

  • visceral, or the muscle found in internal organs;
  • cardiac, or the muscle only found in the heart;
  • and skeletal, the muscles attached to our bones that we can consciously control.

The decline in skeletal muscle mass begins at the age of 30, accelerates at the age of 40, and increases dramatically with every decade of life. According to a study cited by the International Osteoporosis Foundation, the prevalence of sarcopenia jumped from 4% of men and 3% of women aged 70 to 75, to 16% of men and 13% of women aged 85 and older.

We need our skeletal muscles in order to move. Every physical movement (talking, walking, chewing) and even just maintaining a position (standing, sitting, squatting) requires the use of these muscles. The loss of skeletal muscle mass greatly affects our balance, posture, strength, mobility, and our ability to independently carry out activities that allow us to live and interact with the world. In short, losing muscle as we age can lead to a decrease in our quality of life.

But don’t worry—there are ways to counter or even reverse the effects of muscle loss even in old age. A study in 1994 (cited by CNN) observed a group of older adults aged 72 to 98 (you read that right—98!), and found that members of the group were able to increase muscle strength through exercise. This was echoed by a 2018 study by researchers at the University of Dublin, which stated that interventions “with both muscle strength training and protein supplementation” were highest in terms of effectiveness.

We at Odyssey Traveller regularly organise small-group educational tours for seniors, and in addition to articles about our favourite destinations, we also publish health and travel tips for older adults.

In this article, we’ll look at activities we can do to build and retain muscle mass.


1) First of all, move.

Loss of muscle mass is related to ageing, but it is also greatly accelerated by a sedentary lifestyle. Note that there is a difference between being “physically inactive” and being “sedentary”. Being “sedentary” means sitting or lying down for long periods of time, such as when watching television, working at a desk, surfing the Internet, or lying down to read. This means you can be doing some physical activity (such as 30 minutes of walking) but still be considered sedentary.

This 2015 study states that “[g]reater overall sitting time was associated with an increased risk of sarcopenia; for each 1 hour increment, the risk increased by 33%…independent of physical activity and other lifestyle and confounding factors.” It is important to minimise your time spent being immobile or sedentary as often as possible.

2) Build activity into your daily life.

Consider introducing short physical activities into your daily routine. For example, if you are able, you can decide to walk instead of taking the bus, or at least get off one stop earlier and walk the rest of the way. Walking is a great exercise—you can do it anywhere for free, and it has been proven to build muscle mass even in adults aged 65 and older.

If you are writing or typing on a computer, you can set an alarm every 15 to 30 minutes to remind you to stand up and move around. You can also switch to a height-adjustable sit-or-stand desk, which gives you an option to continue working even while standing up. You can do simple exercises such as stretches, half squats, or heel raises while waiting for your kettle to boil or while watching the evening news.

3) Eat a balanced diet.

Our eating habits change as we approach old age. Factors include changes in our sense of taste or smell, chewing or swallowing problems, or physical difficulty in food preparation, which leads to caloric and protein deficiency.

Protein, coupled with exercise, is necessary in order to build muscle mass. Scientists recommend 1 to 1.2 grams of high-quality protein intake per kilogram of body weight per day, or up to 30 grams of protein every meal for older adults. This should be balanced with fruits and vegetables. Thirty grams of protein is equivalent to a cooked four-ounce hamburger or five-ounce salmon fillet.

4) Choose food rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that is good for the heart and which has been shown to “blunt the loss of skeletal muscle mass”. Polyunsaturated fat is healthy fat; saturated fat is the kind of fat found in processed and packaged foods and which should be avoided.

Our body can’t produce omega-3 fatty acids on its own, so we need to source it from the food we eat. The Australian Heart Foundation has published a list of omega-3 food sources. The list includes marine-based sources such as salmon, barramundi, and sardines; plant-based sources such as walnuts, pecans, and butter; and animal sources such as lean beef, chicken (without the skin), cheese, and eggs.

5) Avoid unhealthy vices.

Smoking and drinking contributes directly to loss of muscle. A 2015 study that looked at smokers and animals exposed to cigarette smoke found that exposure to cigarette smoke in itself can induce skeletal muscle dysfunction. Smoking also inhibits you physically—it makes you less energetic, puts a strain on your lungs and your heart, and affects your overall endurance.

As for alcohol, a new study in 2017 linked higher alcohol consumption with a higher prevalence of sarcopenia in postmenopausal women (mean age of 62.4 years). Abuse of alcohol leads to a number of life-threatening diseases, including muscle atrophy or the progressive wasting away of muscles.

6) Get into resistance training.

Resistance training (also called weight training or strength training) has been found to be the most important intervention against loss of skeletal muscle mass. Resistance training makes your muscles work against a weight (like when you lift dumbbells or pull resistance bands) or a force (your own weight versus gravity).

There are two terms you often hear when people talk about resistance training: “repetitions” and “sets”. A repetition or a rep is one completion of an exercise, and a set is one group of repetitions. A typical training involves three sets of at least 8 repetitions, with a resting period in between sets. If you’re lifting weights, for example, that would translate to lifting the weight 8 times, resting for a minute or two, then lifting the weight again 8 times until you complete the three sets.

Dorian Jones of London’s Marigold Fitness, interviewed by The Guardian, uses weights that are only one or two kilos to avoid injury.

Remember to consult your healthcare professional before starting any exercise or buying any exercise equipment, especially if you have a chronic health condition or if you’ve been inactive for a long time. He or she will be able to measure your fitness level and recommend an exercise routine or a fitness program best suited to your needs and goals. You can also decide to hire a personal trainer to help you design your program.

7) Include aerobic exercises in your fitness routine.

In addition to resistance training, older adults should also look into incorporating aerobic activities for a balanced fitness program. The Guardian lists five exercises that “help avoid an early death” as they “reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and the risk of heart disease”.

Aerobic activities, such as walking, cycling, or swimming, have several health benefits, including increasing stamina and reducing fatigue, strengthening the heart and lungs, activating the immune system to ward off viral illnesses, and boosting mood by helping release endorphins, a chemical that triggers a positive feeling in the body.

You can start with low-impact exercises. Low-impact exercises put less stress on the body and help avoid injury. These include swimming, yoga, tai chi, water aerobics, or simply walking. Going for a walk for even just 10 minutes a week can lower the risk of death “from any cause”.

Dancing is another great low-impact aerobic activity that also develops memory, balance, and coordination.

Studies have shown that combining yoga and a form of aerobic exercise can double the reduction of cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

As mentioned above, talk to your healthcare professional first as you may have conditions (such as arthritis) that may limit your participation in aerobic activities. Your doctor will surely have great alternatives for you.

8) Find a fitness buddy.

Involve a close friend, your partner, or even the whole family in your fitness journey. Having someone join you while exercising can help motivate you. Your fitness buddy can also watch your back and make your workouts safer, and turn your exercise routine into a fun activity instead of an anxiety-inducing chore.

But be picky as well in choosing your exercise partner! It’s better to go on a 30-minute walk with someone friendly, positive, encouraging, and who can stick to an agreed schedule, rather than someone unenthusiastic, grumpy, and who is always late.

9) Start small.

Any activity is better than no activity, so commit to doing something small but achievable to avoid feeling overwhelmed, and gradually build up from that humble starting point. For example, you can commit to walking every Monday morning for a month, then increase the frequency by walking every Monday and Wednesday, and so on. Before you know it, you’re walking regularly every day.

The key is in finding an activity that you can actually look forward to. A pleasant exercise is an exercise you will stick to and keep on doing, no matter how low you set your bar at the start.

10) Stay positive.

Life is unpredictable. You may have a bad day or even a bad week that will throw your schedule off and leave you unable to stick to your fitness routine. Don’t let this setback derail you from your goals. As illustrated by the study mentioned above about the 98-year-old able to build muscle through resistance training, you are never too old, and it is never too late.

Be kind to yourself. Pick yourself up, start over, and just keep going.

General Advice for Performing Physical Activities

  1. Drink water before and after performing the activity.
  2. Warm up or stretch before the exercise to help your body adjust.
  3. Wear appropriate gear (running shoes, helmet, knee pads) for safety.
  4. Use sun protection (sunscreen, hat, sunglasses) if the activity will be done outdoors.

Odyssey Traveller has several small-group walking tours that you can join now, combining art, architecture, history, and literature with physical activities suited for the senior traveller. We hope to see you on one of our tours!

Originally published on September 18, 2018.

Updated on November 10, 2019.