Help! My muscles are shrinking!

senior woman in purple tank top holds a plank position in a yoga class
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For those who have reached middle adulthood, you may have noticed a few changes that you weren’t expecting. For example, you may have noticed you do not seem to have the strength and endurance you once had.

This could be due in part to age-related muscle loss, called sarcopenia. After age 30, our bodies become less efficient at creating and maintaining muscle tissue, resulting in as much as a 3% to 5% muscle loss per decade.

Why am I losing muscle?

Many factors contribute to muscle loss - lack of physical activity, poor nutrition, illness or injury, genetics, and various medical conditions. When muscles are not being used, our bodies can break down the tissue to conserve energy, causing muscle fibers to shrink and appear smaller. Smaller and weaker muscles result in reduced mobility, endurance, and increased risk of injury.

Although sarcopenia is more commonly seen in older and sedentary individuals. It also occurs in physically active individuals, indicating the true complexity of the disease. To better understand sarcopenia, let’s look at the aging process and muscle loss.

You may not realize it, but our bodies’ cells are constantly being broken down and rebuilt. This regeneration process begins at conception and lasts a lifetime. However, the rate and accuracy vary greatly, and as time passes, the body becomes less effective and efficient in replacing cells.

As we age, hormonal changes occur, lowering the concentration of growth hormones and testosterone (needed to stimulate protein and muscle growth). Additionally, neurological changes may occur, affecting the nerve cells responsible for sending signals from the brain to the muscle contributing to the breakdown of muscle tissue. Furthermore, the body produces fewer proteins that promote muscle growth.

Why do I need to prevent muscle loss?

Sarcopenia is one of the most important causes of functional decline and loss of independence as we age. Simply put, it contributes to a decrease in quality of life because both loss of muscle mass and loss of muscle function or strength leaves us unable to enjoy the things we once did. Muscle loss leads to overall muscle weakness, a slower walking speed, and difficulty doing daily activities, such as bathing, dressing, shopping, cleaning, and driving.

Additionally, it leads to:

  • Increased risk of falls
  • Poor balance
  • Decreased quality of life
  • Decreased life expectancy

Take action today

Sarcopenia affects 10% to 20% of adults over the age of 50. However, there is good news! You can take steps to prevent the rate at which you lose muscle mass. The best way to prevent and manage sarcopenia is to keep moving!

Keep muscles active

Walking

  • Walking is one of the simplest and most popular forms of physical activity.
  • It is a free, easy, and low-impact activity, making it an excellent option for those with joint issues.
  • It can be done almost anywhere, either alone or with a friend.
  • You can walk outdoors, indoors, and even in your own home.  
  • Try walking videos, or walk in-place in your living room, while cooking, during TV commercials, or while enjoying the patio or backyard.
  • Walking builds muscle, strengthens bones, and improves your heart health.

Strength and Resistance Activities

  • Strength training, otherwise known as resistance or weight training, is any physical movement that increases muscle strength by having muscles work against a weight or force.
  • Strengthening activities help build and maintain muscle tissue and play a role in neurological changes that enhance nerve-muscle interaction.
  • Increase action of growth-promoting hormones.
  • Improve muscle strength and tone, which helps protect joints from injury.
  • Increase muscle mass, strength, and endurance.
  • Strength training can be done using your body weight, doing activities such as squats, push-ups, crunches, or walking upstairs. It can also be done using free weights, weight machines, or resistance bands.

Eating to preserve muscle

As we age, our nutritional needs change. This is because we need fewer calories and more nutrients to maintain a healthy weight. Yes, you did read that correctly. More nutrients, fewer calories. Therefore, the foods we do consume need to be nutrient-rich. Nutrient-rich foods are those rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients. They include fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and lean proteins.

Consuming a balanced diet and limiting the number of processed foods or foods high in saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium is important at any age. However, as we age, it is even more critical. Healthy eating as we age can help us feel better, prevent, and manage chronic illnesses, keep us energized and help us maintain our lean muscle mass to live life to the fullest. For easy and healthy recipes, click here.  

SOURCE: Diane Reinhold, MPH, MS, RDN, Nutrition and Wellness Educator, University of Illinois Extension serving Jo Daviess, Stephenson, and Winnebago Counties.

Want to read more? Check out Walking the Line: A Journey of Wellness. This blog is intended to raise awareness and knowledge about health and wellness, inspire behavior change, share new skills, and validate that life is truly challenging. As we grow and learn together, it is my hope that each of us will look within ourselves and acknowledge our own personal choices and behaviors and how they contribute to our overall state of health and wellness. Please join me in this amazing adventure as we journey together, walking the line towards health and wellness.

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