Q: At what age do you lose the ability to build muscle? I’m 64 years old and have been told that I’m too old to create new muscle and that all I can do is tone my existing muscles.
A: You’re never too old to build muscle! And it’s crucial for older adults to do so to maintain functional abilities such as climbing stairs and lifting things around the house (including yourself out of a chair). The beauty of muscle is that a 90-year-old has nearly the same capacity to create new muscle fiber as a 30-year-old.
So why don’t we have a slew of elderly folks walking around flexing what they’ve got? Simple. Most people slow down and stop pushing themselves as they age. When muscles aren’t asked to produce much force, whether it’s from moving furniture, picking up the grandkids or lifting a heavy weight, the muscles adapt by dialing it down a notch. This muscle atrophy, known as sarcopenia, is common with aging. But the truth is, much of the weakness in older age is preventable if muscles are kept active.
What you may have heard about older people not being able to build muscle may be alluding to the fact that sarcopenia can be difficult to counteract. Even if you build muscle, it may not be so easy to build more than you ever had. More likely you are maintaining your current levels of muscle and strength.
Of course, your ability to build muscle all depends on whether the exercises you do provide a sufficient stimulus to actually trigger muscle growth. And in many cases, it does not. Doing exercises using a 3- or 5-pound dumbbell? Chances are, that weight isn't doing much in the way of preserving or building rapidly diminishing muscle. If you’re doing stretching-based workouts or calisthenics without weights or rubber resistance bands, it may be difficult to build muscle.
In 2007, the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association jointly issued exercise guidelines specifically targeting older adults. The recommendations emphasized that older adults should perform muscle-strengthening exercises at least twice a week, doing at least one set of 10 to 15 repetitions of 8 to 10 exercises that target the major muscle groups in the upper and lower body. The guidelines point out that the effort of each lift should be challenging: The muscle effort should be moderate to high. In other words, light weights don’t cut it.
How many times you perform an exercise, or the repetition number, is important because it guides you as to how much resistance to use (and therefore the effort level you make). If you use a 5-pound dumbbell during an exercise and find that after 15 repetitions you haven’t really worked the target muscle groups because you can whip out another five, 10 or 15 reps, then your effort level was very light. With this amount of weight, you're not overloading the muscle in a way that will force it to become stronger. Instead, assuming you are doing extra reps to generate fatigue, you’re simply training a small percentage of the muscle fibers in a muscle and building more muscle endurance. All exercise is beneficial, but this simply isn’t the recipe to get stronger or to preserve the muscle you’re losing, or to build more.
To sufficiently stimulate the muscles to get stronger, they need to be challenged. So each exercise should feel like you're working moderately hard or working at an even harder level.
Of course, this may not be realistic for every exercise, or for every person. The recommendations point out that some older adults have activity limitations—whether it's range of motion, or from arthritis—and in that case, a physical activity plan should be developed to take individual limitations into account. You may be limited in what you can do if you have a joint or other medical condition, but it’s likely that you can still choose exercise that will enhance your strength and avoid exacerbating problem areas. If you have tendinitis in your elbows, for example, you may be able to adapt some moves to avoid excessive bending during weight training. If you have arthritis in your knees, you may be need to modify some lower-body exercises, but you can probably still perform a challenging upper body workout.
Your best bet is to consult with a certified fitness professional or physical therapist to design a program of exercises that are appropriate for your individual needs. Exercises that are particularly helpful for an older adult are squats and lunges (but make sure to consult with a personal trainer to make sure that you execute them properly to avoid straining your knees or back) for the lower body, and basic upper-arm moves like triceps dips, biceps curls and back moves like a one-arm row. If you're exercise-savvy and need new ideas, check out The MSN Fit Zone for some basic exercises that target your major muscle groups. For more info on the physical activity guidelines for older adults, click here.
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