Most of us “baby boomers” like to think we’re younger than we are. It’s something we really notice when we flip through old family photo albums and notice how much older our parents or grandparents looked in their 50’s than many of us do now. Even so, our bodies begin their slow decline by the time we reach our 30’s – with no system left untouched. But advances in medicine and science mean that we’re living healthier lives than our parents did, and it’s expected that we’ll work longer and live longer than they did, too.
Science is looking at the effects of aging on all fronts. But a lot of attention is being paid to the importance of maintaining muscle mass in keeping us healthy, vital and independent as we grow older. Having adequate muscle means that as we age, we can stay strong and mobile, and better able to maintain our balance which can help prevent falls. And since muscle tissue burns calories, maintaining it will help to keep us trim, too.
But if we don’t take care of our muscles, we get weaker and lose endurance – and as muscles become weaker, we tend to exercise less. As we lose muscle, we burn fewer calories, and – coupled with a decline in activity – weight can start to creep up.
Scientists aren’t exactly sure why we lose muscle mass as we age. By the time we hit our late 30’s and early 40’s, we start to lose about a quarter pound of muscle each year. Genetics, physical activity and diet are all at play – and while we can’t change our genetic makeup, it’s clear that strength training and adequate dietary protein can help slow the process of muscle loss.
Weight training is the exercise method of choice when it comes to preserving and building muscle. Not only can it help to increase muscle size and strength (even in folks in their 60s, 70s and beyond), it helps to increase muscle power, too. Power is the force and speed of movement you need to perform everyday tasks – like getting out of a car or up from a chair. You need both – strength might help you to better uncap a jar lid, but power may serve you better if you’re trying to catch yourself from falling on the stairs. And there’s another upside to strength training, too – it helps maintain bone mass. A twice weekly regimen that works out all the major muscle groups should do it.
To maintain or build muscle mass, we need to eat adequate protein – and older people may actually need higher amounts of protein in the diet than younger adults in order to manufacture muscle tissue1. Not only that, older people may also do better if they distribute their protein intake fairly evenly throughout the day, rather than what’s more typically done – little to none at breakfast, small amounts at lunch, and then a big load of at dinner. It takes about 20 grams or more at a meal to stimulate protein synthesis in older adults, so researchers are suggesting that they aim for 20-30 grams of protein at each of the main meals2 – or about what you’d get from a breast half of chicken, a fish filet, or a cup of nonfat cottage cheese.
Eating well and staying active has helped to shift our definition of aging – we now call those between 65 and 74 the “young old”, and until we hit 85, we’re still only “middle old”. We boomers have redefined aging, too – we like to say that “50 is the new 40”.
1 Katsanos CS et al. Am J Clin Nutr 82:1065, 2005
2 Symons et al. J Am Diet Assn 109:1582, 2009.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.