Getting weaker is a major health issue for most older Americans. And although losing strength is a natural part of aging—as you get older, your body naturally reduces muscle mass—there are actions you can take to limit its impact on your daily life.
Muscle loss with aging might not seem like much of a health disturbance at first glance. Sure, you might not be able to lift heavy items anymore, and perhaps you don’t necessarily need or want to.
But weak muscles can diminish your quality of life, leave you more susceptible to certain diseases, and increase your chances of a serious injury. A weak body leaves you exposed to falls and fractures, and possibly with the inability to stand up straight or move around.
If you want to age as healthfully as possible, one of the most important things you can do is try to maintain your muscle mass.
Muscle Mass and Aging
Muscle mass peaks in both men and women during their mid-20s and 30s, and usually starts to diminish around age 40. This is largely due to reductions in testosterone production, and over time, people can lose over 40% of their functional strength unless concentrated efforts are made to maintain it.
Some people experience excessive muscle loss, also known as sarcopenia, which can arise after age 50 when skeletal muscle is lost at a rate between 0.5 percent and 1 percent per year.
The best way to reverse the aging process and maintain muscle mass is by eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean protein while also making sure you’re doing resistance training.
Practicing some form of weight lifting two to three times per week can help you reduce the risks associated with weak muscles and weak bones and severely limit muscle loss with aging.
What Causes Age-Related Weakness?
There are a few reasons why you get weaker with age, and some of them are generally preventable.
You can’t reverse certain natural biological processes, but you can manage them in order to delay their onset and reduce their impact on your overall health or lifestyle.
Sarcopenia, in my opinion, is one of the most dangerous conditions facing older Americans. The loss of muscle mass leaves your bones and joints susceptible to injury because they are lacking the tissue to absorb or redistribute the shock from internal and external forces.
Let’s look at your knees, for example. When you have muscle mass in your legs, it takes pressure off the bones and joints in the knee.
Weight can be carried by your muscle to promote longevity of the joint, but the less muscle you have, the more exposed your joints become. Therefore, sarcopenia could potentially worsen the effects of osteoporosis, a far more well-known malady facing aging individuals.
Furthermore, a reduction in muscle mass not only leaves your bones exposed to injury and fractures, but it also makes it harder to do everyday activities like carry grocery bags, stand up, and even dress and bathe yourself.
2. Hormonal Changes
The hormone testosterone also plays a major role in the production and maintenance of muscle tissue, but it’s something that your body produces less of as you age.
Testosterone stimulates muscle growth by binding to the androgen receptors in muscle cells. When this occurs, muscle fibers remain intact. Without adequate amounts of testosterone, the fibers slowly begin to deteriorate.
After about age 40, testosterone levels begin to decline, which is also about the exact time muscle mass begins to drop. It is not a coincidence. Testosterone loss can be slowed by dietary and lifestyle means, and also by how much of the hormone you had to begin with.
“Normal” testosterone levels are between 270 nanograms per decilitier (ng/dL) to 1,070 ng/dL in healthy men, and about 15 ng/dL to 70 ng/dL in healthy women. As such, someone who has much higher levels of testosterone to begin with may not notice as substantial a difference as quickly as someone starting out with less.
That said, any drop in testosterone may be noticeable.
3. Lack of Stimulus
Most Americans don’t practice any form of regular exercise and generally live a sedentary life. Between spending eight-plus hours per day seated at a desk in the office, at least one hour in a vehicle stuck in traffic, and a few more in front of a TV or other screen at night, quite simply, the muscles aren’t getting used.
This lack of stimulus can lead to muscle atrophy, which is the wasting away (shrinking and weakening) of muscles. People who are bedridden are at the greatest risk of muscle atrophy, but even an inactive person who rarely walks can experience it to a certain degree.
Keeping muscles active through exercise helps maintain them.
Not only does muscle mass decrease with age, but as mentioned, the quality and amount of bone do, too. Osteoporosis is characterized by low bone mass and the deterioration of bone tissue, which can leave a person susceptible to breaks.
Muscle mass can improve your balance and mobility to limit the risks of weak bones.
Now, it’s possible to read the above and throw your hands in the air and claim defeat, but the reality is that there is plenty you can do to get stronger with age.
Treatment Options: How to Get Stronger
Good things happen when you build and maintain muscle mass. First off, it speeds up your metabolism so that your body better utilizes calories.
Exercises that focus on building and strengthening muscle can improve glucose metabolism, thus limiting the risk of diabetes while also reducing the likelihood of obesity. A faster metabolism means less fat storage.
Muscle mass and strength also makes your day-to-day life easier and safer. It gives you more control of your body, allows for greater durability, and provides you with more independence.
For these reasons alone—aside from the health concerns—it’s a wise idea to seek treatment against muscle loss and work to restore your muscle tissue.
1. Resistance Exercise
The best way to build and strengthen muscle is through resistance training (weight training). Resistance training applies tension to the muscles through contractile and eccentric movements.
Body weight, elastics, kettlebells, dumbbells, machines, barbells, weight vests, or any object can be used to add resistance to muscles.
Weight training not only strengthens and grows muscles, but studies have shown that it can also improve bone density, glucose metabolism, and boost testosterone. It is by the far the best thing you can do to improve your strength and muscle size.
If you have never done resistance training before, it’s best to hire an experienced trainer to help you perform movements safely.
2. Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT)
For some, testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) may be in order. The therapy involves the direct intake of synthetic testosterone via injection, gel, cream, patch, or even nasal sprays to return hormone levels to the desired amounts.
Although you can go into a number of private clinics and have TRT, it might not be worthwhile for everybody. I’d only recommend it if your testosterone levels are outside of the normal range and it’s been suggested by your family doctor.
You can have your testosterone levels checked with a blood test. TRT can help restore strength and, combined with resistance exercise, enhance your ability to build and maintain muscle. This treatment is used by men.
It should be noted that you should avoid any kind of herbal product or supplement that claims to restore testosterone. TRT therapy is administered by a healthcare professional and these DIY products are, for the most part, snake oil.
If TRT is something you’re interested in, talk to your family doctor to see if it’s required, and for a referral to a reputable professional.
Stay Strong with Resistance Training
It’s true that you don’t need to be able to lift hundreds of pounds, but maintaining muscle mass and strength with age can have some major health benefits, including increased bone density and improved metabolism, as well as a lower risk of devastating falls and cardiovascular disease due to a sedentary lifestyle.
Losing strength can affect your quality of life in a number of ways and put you at risk for some serious injuries.
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