Editor’s Note: This post was updated on September 18, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on September 14, 2016.
You notice the early signs of crow’s feet under unflattering lighting.
You don’t know how your upper arms got so flabby.
And you are embarrassingly out of breath when you’re forced to take the stairs.
Admit it, the thought of getting older bothers you sometimes.
You’re trying to just accept these changes as part of getting older, since everyone else seems to.
But what if I told you, you may not have to? While there may be limitations, it’s absolutely possible to naturally maintain or slow down the decline of your physical health and function into your golden years. And it all comes down to improving and maintaining your body composition.
Just take it from Dr. Wayne Westcott, professor of exercise science at Quincy College, who managed to maintain the body composition and functional fitness he had in his 20s at age 67, with a healthy body fat percentage of around 12%.
While it is true that your body won’t function the same as it did when you were a teenager, this doesn’t mean you have to accept a lower quality of life as you age.
With the right attitude and a little effort, you can preserve your body, mind, and even your appearance by engaging your body’s built-in anti-aging system: your Skeletal Muscle Mass.
Muscles: More Than Just For Lifting
It turns out that your muscles help you in ways you didn’t think of. For one, your muscular health can have a profound impact on how well you age. Anyone who’s looking into aging gracefully and maintaining their quality of life should start paying attention to the current state of their muscle mass.
First, let’s take a look at sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is the natural loss of muscle tissue, or muscle atrophy, as part of the aging process. The mechanism behind this phenomenon is often attributed to dwindling motor neurons during the first six decades of life and sudden decline thereafter.
Imagine your motor neurons as telephone wires. These motor neurons act as messengers between your muscle and the brain, sending signals when you think of moving your feet so you can walk. The less you use your muscles, the weaker these neurons becomes. Even a week of bed rest can result in a substantial reduction in skeletal muscle mass.
It is indeed possible to delay your muscle loss, and as we’ll see, improving your muscle quality and then maintaining that level as you age could be the true fountain of youth.
Move Over Antioxidants, Muscle is the New King of Anti-Aging
The idea of consuming antioxidants as part of an anti-aging plan has been around for years. Take carotenoids for instance. This particular antioxidant gives carrots, melons, and other fruits & vegetables their color, and it has been associated with reducing risk of premature skin aging and preventing cancer.
Fast forward to the present – new studies are now indicating that muscle mass may be giving antioxidants a run for their money in the race to be the most effective means of anti-aging.
Recent research reveals that track and field athletes in their 80s were able to slow down muscle atrophy by avoiding the sudden decline in the number of motor neurons. In fact, they had 28% more functioning motor units and were functioning better than the control group — a group of healthy, but inactive, 80-year-olds.
Sounds good, but what if you’re not an athlete?
If you take anything away from this article, take away this: research has shown that muscle loss and weakness is not actually a part of aging per se, but rather a result of chronic disuse. That’s right: although people tend to lose muscle mass as they get older, it’s not because of the aging process itself that causes muscle atrophy, but because people tend to become inactive as they age. Inactivity is the true culprit behind muscle loss and weakness.
Why is this great news? Because unlike aging, you can actually do something about inactivity.
For example, a study on postmenopausal women, revealed that consistent resistance training resulted to increased muscle strength by upwards of 19% after one year. The researchers attributed this to increased bone mineral density (BMD), which defends against brittle bones – another hallmark of aging.
A review of related studies on the same subject also confirmed that frailty can be reduced. Muscle quality (strength relative to muscle mass) can indeed be improved with resistance training.
A running theme throughout these studies is the idea that physical aging can be slowed down with regular physical activity — specifically exercise to keep those muscles from thinking that they don’t have a purpose anymore.
You’re probably curious about what kind of exercise intensity is required to receive these benefits. To get closer to answering this question, we need to meet a second major player in the conversation about muscle mass and aging: telomeres.
Longer Telomeres, Longer Life
Just what the heck are telomeres? An article published in Nature – Telomeres and Adversity: Too Toxic to Ignore wonderfully describes the nature and function of telomeres (emphasis added):
Telomeres are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes, like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. Without the coating, shoelaces become frayed until they can no longer do their job, just as without telomeres, DNA strands become damaged and our cells can’t do their job.
Telomere shortening is one of the hallmarks of cellular aging and has been a reliable predictor of mortality. Often, cells with shortened telomeres tend to become malfunctional and secrete hormone factors that trigger inflammatory processes and tumor formation.
Here’s a helpful graphic that illustrates it further:
So, unlike muscle wasting, telomere shortening is directly associated with aging. However, just like muscle wasting, you can do something about it.
A 2015 study found out that people who regularly exercise have longer telomeres, but what was especially interesting was that these benefits are achievable for everyone. You don’t have to spend the entire day at the gym; in fact, moderate, not heavy strength training exercise was found to be effective.
Moderate is the keyword here, which brings us all the way back to Dr. Wescott and his fitness routine. He describes it this way:
“..I do strength training twice a week, and endurance exercise in some form probably about five times a week, whether it’s cycling or jogging or walking.”
Strength training twice a week? That’s not too demanding, and in terms of the optimal training frequency, may be all that you need to do anyway to see measurable changes in Lean Body Mass, especially if you’re doing a whole body workout.
Endurance exercise 5 times a week? That may seem like a big commitment, but when you consider that there are many ways to achieve this, as Wescott does, the options for endurance exercise are various enough to allow for anyone to get started.
As a beginner, you don’t have to run marathons nor start lifting heavy at the gym. Exercising in moderation — just keeping those muscles moving (and, consequently, maintaining muscle mass) and heart rate pumping — is the key.
Besides delaying telomere shortening, maintaining muscle mass as you age has the following healthy benefits:
- Muscle loss is linked to a reduced metabolic rate. This means you are more likely to gain body fat because you have less muscle mass to burn those calories. Increased body fat can plague people as they age, so any help in stopping fat gain is a definite perk.
- Loss of skeletal muscle mass has been associated with increased insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a known precursor of diabetes.
- A 15-year cohort study of American adults aged 65 years old and above found that individuals who strength trained at least twice a week had 46 percent lower odds of death (all-cause mortality) than those who did not.
It’s quite common for older folks to simply rely on cardio-based workouts such as running instead of doing a strength training workout to help build and maintain muscle mass.
Sure, cardio has its own set of benefits. However, keep in mind that the greatest benefits often result from going out of your comfort zone. Strength training has no age limit after all!
As previously mentioned, doing strength training twice a week regularly can be all that you need to get anti-aging benefits.
As you get stronger and the routine feels less challenging, you can progress to adding free weights or adding more resistance by going to the gym or purchasing kettlebells, new equipment etc. You can also try more advanced body weight workouts.
Hopefully, you’ve seen that you don’t need to resign yourself to becoming slower and weaker as a consequence of age. You don’t have to be an athlete, and you don’t need to pretend to be one, either. Improving your muscle mass is something anyone can do.
If you ever find yourself looking at anti-aging tips, maybe it’s time to rethink your relationship between you and your muscles.
Kyjean Tomboc is a nurse turned freelance healthcare copywriter and UX researcher. After experimenting with going paleo and vegetarian, she realized that it all boils down to eating real food.