The Importance of Building and Maintaining Muscle As We Age

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The field of Precision Medicine, which takes a holistic and preventative approach to tailoring health care to the individual's unique genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors, has shed light on the critical role that muscle plays in our health, longevity, and quality of life – including health span. So, let’s explore the importance of muscle maintenance, strategies to build and maintain muscle effectively, and debunk some common myths around muscle mass.

The Biological Role of Muscle Mass

Muscle mass represents more than just physical strength or athletic prowess; it is a vital component of the human body that significantly influences our overall health. Yet, as we age, we naturally lose muscle mass in a process called sarcopenia, which can start as early as our 30s, and accelerates after the age of 50. This loss of muscle mass and strength can lead to frailty, reduced mobility, falls, and decreased independence.

  1. Muscle plays several crucial roles in the body. First and foremost, it contributes to movement and stability, enabling all bodily movements from walking to lifting to breathing. It provides stability to joints, helping to maintain balance and prevent falls – particularly in older age.

  1. Muscles are metabolically active, meaning they burn calories even at rest. So, maintaining or increasing muscle mass can aid in weight management by increasing basal metabolic rate (BMR). With a higher BMR, you burn more calories throughout the day, which can help prevent obesity and related conditions, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

  1. Muscle also plays a critical role in glucose metabolism. Muscles store glucose in the form of glycogen, a type of sugar. When blood sugar levels rise, our muscles take up glucose from the blood and store it – creating a reservoir of energy while helping to regulate blood sugar levels. This function is essential in managing and preventing metabolic conditions, such as diabetes.

  1. Recent research has shown that muscles produce and release small proteins called myokines when contracting, which have anti-inflammatory effects and can boost our immune function.

  1. The physical stress from exercise stimulates our bones to increase in density, which can prevent osteoporosis. Muscles and mobility are required for physical exercise, and strong muscles provide better support for our bones, reducing the risk of fractures.

How to Build and Maintain Muscle

To build and maintain healthy muscle requires a two-pronged approach: resistance training and protein-rich nutrition.

Resistance Training: Research shows that resistance or strength training is the most effective way to build and maintain muscle mass. This type of exercise involves working against a force, whether it's weights, resistance bands, or your own body weight. Resistance training not only builds muscle, but also strengthens bones, which is vital for preventing osteoporosis, a common condition in older adults.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends adults engage in resistance training at least two days per week, targeting all major muscle groups. However, if you're new to resistance training, start slowly and work your way up to more days, reps, and/or weight. Consulting with a personal trainer, fitness professional, or even a physical therapist can provide guidance on safe and effective workouts for your body.

Protein-Rich Nutrition: Protein is a key macronutrient for muscle health. It provides the amino acids that your body uses to repair and build new muscle tissue, especially after resistance training. As we age, our bodies become less efficient at processing protein, meaning older adults may need more protein than their younger counterparts.

What to Eat for Better Muscle Growth and Maintenance

The right nutrition for your body can significantly support muscle growth and maintenance.

We know that protein is critical for muscle health. High-quality protein sources are as important as the distribution of protein intake throughout the day, given your body can only utilize a certain amount at one time for muscle synthesis.

Animal products are excellent sources of complete proteins, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids that our bodies cannot produce on their own.

  1. Lean meats like chicken, turkey, and lean cuts of beef or pork are high in protein and contain essential nutrients like iron and vitamin B12.
  2. Fish, especially oily fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna, are not only high in protein but also rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
  3. Eggs are a very good source of high-quality protein, with the added advantage of being rich in vitamins and minerals.
  4. If you can tolerate dairy and lactose, milk, cheese, and yogurt are all good sources of protein. Some patients may benefit from choosing low-fat or non-fat versions to avoid excessive saturated fat.

For those following a vegan or vegetarian diet, there are plenty of plant-based sources of protein, as well. And while most plant proteins are not ‘complete,’ combining different plant proteins throughout the day can ensure you get all the essential amino acids.

  1. Legumes: beans, lentils, and peas are high in both protein and fiber. They're also excellent sources of iron and potassium.
  2. Soybeans and soy products like tofu, tempeh, and edamame are some of the few plant-based sources of complete protein. They're also rich in fiber and micronutrients.
  3. Quinoa is also a complete protein, providing all nine essential amino acids. It's also high in fiber and various vitamins and minerals.
  4. Almonds, peanuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, and hemp seeds are high in protein and healthy fats.
  5. Foods like brown rice, oatmeal, and whole grain bread are not only sources of protein but also provide valuable fiber and complex carbohydrates.
  6. Protein-rich vegetables: while vegetables generally don’t have a particularly high concentration of protein, some, like spinach, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts, do contain a decent amount.

Bear in mind that your protein needs can vary based on factors like age, sex, activity level, and health status. A balanced diet that includes a variety of different protein sources can help ensure you're getting all the amino acids and nutrients you need for optimal health, which your genetics helps to inform. Always consult a healthcare professional or dietitian for personalized advice.

What is ‘Sarcopenia’ and How to Prevent It

Sarcopenia is a condition characterized by the loss of muscle mass, strength, and function with age. It is a complex, multifactorial process influenced by many factors:

  1. As we age, our bodies naturally lose muscle mass and function, a process that can begin as early as our 30s. This is partly due to changes in muscle metabolism and a reduction in the body's ability to synthesize proteins efficiently.
  2. A sedentary lifestyle accelerates muscle loss. Our muscles operate on a 'use it or lose it' principle. If we don't regularly challenge our muscles through physical activity, they lose their strength and mass over time.
  3. Hormones like testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor play a significant role in muscle growth and maintenance. With age, levels of these hormones decrease, contributing to muscle loss.
  4. Inadequate protein and calorie intake can contribute to muscle loss. As we age, our dietary needs change, and we may require more protein to maintain muscle mass.
  5. Chronic diseases can also lead to muscle loss, either directly or indirectly, by reducing appetite, increasing inflammation, or causing fatigue that limits physical activity.

While sarcopenia is a natural part of aging, there are steps you can take to slow its progression including regular resistance training, adequate protein intake, healthy lifestyle choices – like avoiding smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, and managing stress, which can cause hormonal imbalances – and regular medical visits to identify underlying conditions that contribute to muscle loss.

Looking for more resources on building and maintaining muscle mass? Check out these episodes of the Wild Health Podcast: