Spending time pumping weights in the gym and sipping on protein shakes may pay off in a big way as you age.
A new review of studies in the journal Age and Ageing pinpoints building muscle and eating lots of protein as the best ways to fend off sarcopenia — a syndrome that causes people to lose muscle mass and strength in their later years. The review compiled 13-years worth of published research on sarcopenia interventions in adults 50 and older, to help scientists get a better grasp on how to prevent and treat the disease.
On average, adults begin losing eight percent of their muscle per decade starting at age 40.
Think sarcopenia couldn’t happen to you? It isn’t a rare condition: One in three people over age 50 suffers from it. And on average, adults begin losing eight percent of their muscle per decade starting at age 40, according to researchers.
“The sneaky part of this syndrome is that you really don’t notice it until it comes to a point where you’re so functionally impaired that it’s hard for you to get out of your chair, or you slip and fall,” says study author Jeffrey Stout, PhD, a professor in the department of educational and human sciences at the University of Central Florida. “…It’s like with adult-onset obesity. We often don’t think we’re getting overweight until we look in the mirror and go, ‘Oh my god, what happened.’”
The good news is that researchers found two simple things — getting stronger and increasing your protein intake — can improve your quality of life for decades to come.
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“Resistance exercise is the single best stimulator for maintaining muscle function, strength and size, whether you’re a young athlete, a pro athlete or an 80-year-old woman,” Stout says. By contracting your muscles, weight lifting signals to your body that the muscles need to recover and then rebuild to be bigger and stronger, to be prepared for future stressors.
Another key factor for a long, healthy life: Keeping up your protein consumption. As people age, they often develop digestive issues that make it difficult to consume enough protein from sources rich in it like meat. But turning to protein powders, or other supplements, can help, according to Stout.
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“There are studies looking at protein intake [in relation to] rate of muscle loss, and if you’re getting adequate protein in your diet, the rate at which you lose muscle is much smaller,” Stout says.
Stout acknowledges that it’s difficult to get people into the gym to lift weights, especially if they’ve never done it before. But he recommends working with a trainer or program, and starting with simple body weight exercises before moving on to dumbbells or performing multi-joint moves, such as deadlifts. Multi-joint moves will not only improve muscle mass, but can help strengthen the skeleton, which also gets less dense with age, according to Stout.
By adopting a weight lifting routine and protein-filled diet early in life, Stout says a person’s decline in muscle and strength will be much less pronounced as they age.
“A recent study shows muscle mass is the single best predictor of mortality — the more muscle mass you have, the better your life is going to be [as you age],” Stout says.
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