Sarcopenia, the progressive and accelerated loss of muscle mass and strength as we age, poses significant risks to our overall health and independence. Sarcopenia affects a substantial portion of the population over the age of 60 (up to a quarter of the population), increasing the risk of falls, fractures, hospitalization, loss of independence, and chronic diseases. While the concept of sarcopenia is not new, it has gained recognition as a disease in recent years. However, the good news is that it is never too late to fight back against sarcopenia and build muscle. In this article, we explore the importance of combating sarcopenia, the effectiveness of resistance training, and strategies for individuals of all ages to maintain and strengthen their muscles.
The importance of sarcopenia assessment and management is greater now than at any other time in history, due to an aging population and increased sedentary behaviour. Unfortunately, there is no universal consensus on the assessment of sarcopenia, with guidelines still being established across different parts of the world. The most common assessments for diagnosing sarcopenia are estimations of muscle mass, strength testing, and physical performance testing.
The initial step in diagnosing sarcopenia involves evaluating muscle mass, and the guidelines provided by Australia and New Zealand suggest the use of DEXA for this purpose. DEXA scanning is considered superior to Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA) in terms of accuracy, it involves significantly less radiation compared to Computed Tomography (CT) scans, and is more cost-effective and time-efficient than Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). The radiation exposure during a DEXA scan is minimal, akin to that of a two-hour plane flight, and the entire scan only takes 3 to 4 minutes.
Resistance training is the most effective way to build and strengthen muscles regardless of age. Various forms of resistance training, such as lifting free weights, using machine weights, employing resistance bands, or engaging in bodyweight exercises like push-ups and squats, can be tailored to individual capabilities.
Clinical trials have demonstrated that adults of all ages can achieve positive increases in strength, power, and muscle mass through regular resistance training. Remarkable improvements have been observed in as little as eight weeks of regular training. In one study frail individuals in their late 80s achieved nearly 10% increases in mid-thigh muscle area and leg strength improvements of approximately 180%.
The inspiring story of Charles Eugster highlights the transformative power of exercise even in older age. Charles was a British-Swiss man who took up resistance training in his late 80s and went on to become a bodybuilder in his 90s– it is never too late to start building muscle and combating the effects of sarcopenia.
Resistance Training and Weight Loss
Older adults often face a dilemma when advised to lose weight, as weight loss typically leads to a loss in muscle mass. This muscle loss can have detrimental effects on overall health, particularly for individuals with conditions such as type 2 diabetes where muscles play an important role in the regulation of blood glucose. However, research has shown when resistance training and adequate protein intake are added to the weight loss equation, muscle loss is minimised and metabolic health is preserved, ultimately reducing the risk of chronic disease.
What you can do
Engaging in resistance training at least twice a week is recommended for all adults regardless of age, weight loss goals, or sarcopenia status. For people suffering from sarcopenia, 3-4 days of resistance training is recommended to reverse the age-related loss in muscle. Results can be observed in as little as eight weeks, but it is crucial to continue resistance training for continued improvements and maintenance of muscle mass, functional strength, and power. If you have prior experience with resistance training then you can start with exercises you are comfortable with at light intensities of effort and build from there. Body weight exercises such as squats and push ups (choose a variation suitable for your current ability) are a great place to start. Seeking guidance from an accredited exercise professional can aid in designing a personalized program that suits individual needs and capabilities.
Muscles for all
Sarcopenia may be an inevitable part of the aging process, but it is not an insurmountable obstacle. By incorporating resistance training into our lives we can counteract muscle loss, improve strength, and safeguard our health and independence. No matter your age, the evidence shows that it is never too late to start building muscle and defying the effects of sarcopenia. Embrace the power of resistance training and unlock the potential for a stronger and healthier future.