What you can do now to help prevent age-related muscle loss
Sarcopenia. Sounds like a little-known Mediterranean island—but it’s actually the medical term for age-related muscle loss. And it happens, in varying degrees, to all of us. Studies show that we lose ½ to 1 percent of our lean muscle mass each year, starting as early as our thirties (eek!) Muscle strength also declines by 12 to 15 percent per decade. These drops are much more dramatic, however, among people who eat less healthfully, don’t exercise regularly and even those who lose a significant amount of weight (since muscle tends to vanish along with the fat). In one study, 30-year-olds who were put on bed rest for a month lost an average of a pound of muscle just from their legs. In a separate study, even greater losses occurred in older adults after just ten days. (Eek is right!)
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The short-term and long-term effects of Sarcopenia
In the short term, any amount of lean muscle or strength loss can cause annoyances ranging from not being able to open a jar of pickles to premature aging (sunken cheeks, more pronounced wrinkling). And if left unchecked, sarcopenia can lead to a host of issues later in life, including disability and increased mortality risk due to frailty. It also ups your odds for metabolic disorders and type 2 diabetes—since muscle tissue helps regulate blood sugar, insulin and other hormones. In fact, it’s estimated that the annual direct health costs of age-related muscle loss soar upwards of $18.5 billion in the U.S.—making it a pricier problem than osteoporosis. “Sarcopenia tends to be a slow and insidious process—it’s not something that just happens when you reach old age,” says Douglas Paddon-Jones, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. “The parallel we often draw is with osteoporosis. It’s subtle at first and becomes far more consequential when it has progressed. That’s why it’s so important to maintain as much lean muscle mass as you can, from your thirties and forties onward. But even if you start later in life you can make a big difference.”
And that (finally!) brings us to some happy news: experts say there are simple, science-proven steps you can take to preserve those muscles of yours—and even reverse age-related loss that has already occurred. Oh, and a lot of the advice involves eating! What could be better? Dig in:
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1. Nosh on high-quality protein
The amino acids in protein are the building blocks of muscle, which is why diet tops the list of changes experts say you should make. And one amino acid, called leucine, is particularly good at turning on your body’s muscle-building machinery. Once that muscle-building switch is flipped—you need to do this at each meal—you’re better able to take in the amino acids (of any type) from protein in your diet. Dairy products—especially those high in whey protein like milk and Greek yogurt—are excellent sources of leucine. Lean meat, fish and soy, such as edamame and tofu, are also rich in this amino acid.
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2. Get 30 grams of protein per meal
“Most of us eat a tiny amount at breakfast, a bit more for lunch and our evening meal is a complete protein frenzy. But emerging research suggests we should be eating differently,” says Susan Kundrat, M.S., R.D., nutritional sciences program director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Though it’s more than what’s recommended for general health and good nutrition, “getting a consistent, moderate 30-gram dose at mealtimes appears to be optimal for building and maintaining lean muscle mass,” says Kundrat. (And, no, more isn’t better. Your body doesn’t have a big storage tank for protein—so if you eat half a chicken, you’ll only use part of it. The rest will be stored as fat or, um, get flushed.) What does “30 grams” mean in real-life terms? It’s equal to a three-egg omelet with 1/2 cup hard cheese or 1 cup of Greek yogurt with an ounce of almonds mixed in or a cooked 4-ounce hamburger or 5-ounce salmon fillet.
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3. Eat your Omega-3 fats
These essential fatty acids are known to boost everything from heart health to mood. And a growing body of research has also linked omega-3s with muscle maintenance. How? Inflammation in the body causes muscle to break down, and omega-3s are—you guessed it—anti-inflammatory powerhouses. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that omega-3s improve the way your muscles use protein, as well—and could actually help treat sarcopenia, not simply prevent it. Foods like salmon, walnuts and omega-3-enriched eggs give you a nutritional twofer: you get omega-3s and muscle-building amino acids. Flaxseeds also give you a hit of omega‑3s. Eating 4 ounces of cooked salmon plus 1/4 cup of walnuts a day is about all you need to reap the benefits.
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4. Check your Vitamin D levels
If you’re deficient (your doctor can do a simple blood test) consider upping your daily intake with a supplement, suggests Elena Volpi, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. A recent review of studies found that getting adequate vitamin D helps with muscle protein synthesis and fights inflammation, both of which translate into better muscle strength, power and balance. Note: Usually supplements are meant to be a nutritional safety net. But as you age, your body becomes less able to make vitamin D through sun exposure (it takes four times as long in people over 60), and it’s tough to get enough through diet—so popping a pill may be optimal in this case.
5. Do some resistance training
“It’s massively important for building muscle—and preventing it from vanishing in the first place,” says Paddon-Jones. About 20 to 30 minutes of resistance training, three times a week, is what’s often recommended. But research shows that one to two short resistance workouts each week can improve muscle mass and strength. The key is to really tax your muscles and to vary your workouts by mixing up the exercises, number of reps and the weight you use (e.g., heavy weights and fewer reps one day, lighter weights and more reps the next). Also, make sure you get some protein in your system about an hour or so before (or right after) you hit the gym. The marriage of protein and exercise gives you added benefits. Paddon-Jones found that study participants who noshed on 30 grams of protein pre-workout increased their muscle-building potential by 100 percent. If you lift weights on protein fumes, on the other hand, you won’t get nearly the same results. But grabbing a high-protein snack, particularly milk or whey protein, post-workout can be beneficial as well.
6. Get your heart pumping too
Yep, cardio is an absolute must—primarily for muscle maintenance. “Aerobic exercise improves your body’s response to insulin—and insulin helps with muscle health and repair,” explains Paddon-Jones. Cardio enhances blood flow, as well, including the flow of nutrients inside the muscle. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate to intense cardio, such as brisk walking, biking or swimming, three or more days a week. The payoff: You’ll look and feel better now, and—flash forward a few decades—be the spryest silver fox on the block later on.