For many people, one serious consequence of aging is frailty, marked most noticeably by loss of muscle tone, strength and mass, as well as stiff joints with decreased mobility. The condition often also results in weak, fragile bones that are more prone to fracture during a fall—an increasingly likely risk as people age. But is it possible to stave off some of these effects of aging, and maintain or even build muscle mass, improve mobility, and strengthen bones as we move into our fifth, sixth and seventh decades of life? Is it inevitable that our bodies will lose muscle as we age?
“The answer is yes—and no,” says Benjamin Mwanika, DO, of Sentara RMH Orthopedic and Sports Medicine. “There’s the old adage that you lose it if you don’t use it, and that’s certainly true. The more inactive you are, the less muscle mass you’re going to build and retain. But that’s no less true when you’re 20 or 30, than when you’re 60 or 70.”
The general tendency of muscle is to atrophy if it’s not used, Dr. Mwanika explains, and this kind of “disuse atrophy” is especially present in older people, who tend to be less active—often due to orthopedic or other physical problems they may have.
Another condition known as sarcopenia (“lack of flesh”) refers to muscle loss resulting from certain metabolic or physiological deficits that occur as we age, according to Clark Baumbusch, MD, with Sentara Martha Jefferson Sports Medicine. These deficits include lower levels of growth hormone and, in men, decreased testosterone levels, beginning typically after age 30.
The good news, both physicians agree, is that with strength training and proper diet, most people can slow down or even halt the processes responsible for loss of muscle mass and tone.
Thankfully, according to Dr. Mwanika, there isn’t really an age at which it becomes impossible to build muscle mass.
“It’s not likely that you’re going to build a ‘beach body’ when you’re 60 or 70, but most people can improve their muscle tone and even build muscle at any age,” he says. “However, the focus in older people should be on contributing to their overall health, rather than the aesthetics of bodybuilding.”
Why Build or Maintain Muscle as We Age?
While muscle makes it possible for us to move, strong muscles also serve an important preventive function.
“People with significantly decreased muscle mass tend to have higher fall risk,” says Dr. Baumbusch. “And that’s one of the single most concerning things in elderly people: falls leading to skeletal fracture. Building or maintaining muscle tone and mass helps you maintain good balance. And if you do fall, having more muscle mass decreases your chance of having a traumatic injury.”
There is also evidence, he continues, that circulating growth hormones are present in higher quantities in people with greater skeletal muscle mass. Strength training to build muscle seems to help the body secrete more hormones like testosterone, which in turn contributes to increased muscle growth, setting up a kind of positive feedback cycle. In addition, having greater skeletal muscle mass helps boost the metabolism, causing more calories to be burned—even when we’re resting.
Strength training benefits more than just muscles, however. The resistance that weight-bearing exercise places on our bones helps keep them strong and contributes to growth of new bone tissue, Dr. Mwanika says. Stronger muscles also help stabilize our joints, making us less prone to joint injuries.
Strength Training Tips
Dr. Mwanika says he advises his patients who are 40 and older and are interested in strength training to proceed using common sense.
“You’re not likely to bench press the same weight at 65 or 70 that you did in high school or college, especially if you’re coming back to strength training after years of nonparticipation,” says Dr. Mwanika. “Trying to lift too much weight can lead to ruptured muscles or tendons.”
He generally recommends using lighter weights and doing 3 to 5 sets of 12 to 15 repetitions per set, with a 60-second rest between sets. Older adults also should give muscles sufficient time to recover.
“Following a strength training schedule of one day on, one day off is probably right for most people,” he adds.
Although lifting weights is an obvious way to build and tone muscle, it certainly isn’t the only way. Any type of resistance that regularly requires muscles to work can do the trick.
“There are multiple studies showing, for example, that doing resistance exercise on a stationary bike for 45 minutes, three days a week, will increase the mass of the quadriceps muscles over time,” says Dr. Baumbusch.
He also recommends adding some cardio exercise to any strength training routine to help improve the heart’s ability to circulate blood.
“Improved circulation resulting from cardio training will help pull lactic acid, one of the byproducts of exercise, from muscle tissue, helping you recover more quickly after strength training,” says Dr. Baumbusch.
People who have been away from exercise for a long time should check with their physician before starting a strength training routine, particularly if they have any medical or musculoskeletal problems that might pose a risk of injury.
It’s also a good idea, says Dr. Mwanika, for those coming back to strength training to consult with an athletic trainer, fitness coach, physical therapist or sports medicine specialist to help them find an exercise program that’s right for them. While it is possible to lift weights at home, joining a gym can have multiple advantages, including a wide range of exercise options and trained staff who can help members safely learn the exercise movements while maintaining proper form.
“Particularly if they have any orthopedic problems, like a weak rotator cuff or arthritis in the hip or knees, they should check with a professional who can help them modify the exercises to find what works best for them,” Dr. Baumbusch says.
Warming up with light cardio exercise and stretching for five to 10 minutes helps prepare the body for exercise, he adds. Following a heavy workout, doing a cooldown of light cardio and stretching for five to 10 minutes also helps clear the body of lactic acid and allows heart rate, body temperature and respiration to return to normal.
While there are huge health benefits to be gained from building and maintaining muscle, both physicians emphasize that it’s also important to find workout activities that are enjoyable, so that exercise doesn’t become just another chore—which can lead to burnout. Any activity, however, is better than no activity, and that’s true at any phase of life.
“Whatever your age, exercising and building strength can have important health benefits and help prevent injury,” says Dr. Mwanika. “It’s never too late to get those muscles working.”