How to Maintain Muscle as You Age



I am a 78-year-old male and have lifted weights most of my adult life. I have not gained weight and yet have gotten soft everywhere, particularly around my middle. I know I'm not 25, but is there anything I can do? Very disheartening.



This is a common frustration that I hear from many of my clients, so you are not alone. Development of muscle mass peaks in our 20s and 30s and starts to decline as early as 30 years of age, with the most drastic decline in our muscle mass beginning at age 50. While we can’t completely control the physiological process of aging, there are definitely things that you can do to maximize your body’s strength and preserve your muscle tone, flexibility, and balance.

Why does this happen to us as we get older? The biggest cause of strength and muscle-mass loss with the aging process is the decline of our anabolic hormones, which causes our muscles to slowly break down over time. The reduced levels of hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone play a major role in this process. So not only do we lose muscle mass as we age, but our body becomes more resistant to building new muscle.

The American Geriatrics Society recommends older adults do at least 30 minutes of moderately intense aerobic activity at least five days each week, and participate in light to moderate muscle strength training a minimum of two days each week.

For many older Americans, a decrease in physical activity as they age is a key factor in muscle-mass loss. Physical inactivity leads to muscle atrophy, so you should be commended on your lifelong commitment to physical fitness and strength training. Strength training is one important tool to counteract this problem.

In addition to your strength training, make sure that you are getting aerobic exercise. Low impact exercise such as brisk walking, swimming, cycling, rowing, tennis, hiking, and aqua aerobics are great activities for seniors. Aerobic exercise not only helps to burn stored body fat, but it can also help with maintaining your muscle mass.

Keep up with your strength training program since it can help to improve your muscle elasticity as you age. It also helps to improve balance, range of motion, and bone density. Simple exercises that can be done from a seated position include bicep curls, overhead shoulder presses, and tricep extensions. Use caution and make sure you’re using a weight that is comfortable for you, as the risk of joint-related injuries and recovery time increase with age.

You may want to incorporate some resistance training exercises into your workout routine, which will also help to maintain lean body mass. Resistance training exercises such as wall squats, push-ups, planks, and pelvic bridging exercises are simple moves you can do at home to improve your overall strength, posture, balance, core strength, and flexibility. If you’re up for something new, try a low-impact exercise class such as gentle yoga, Pilates, or Tai Chi.

Don’t forget about nutrition! Eating a balanced diet can also help preserve muscle mass. Loss of appetite in older adults can lead to insufficient nutritional intake, which can also contribute to muscle loss. While the current recommended daily allowance (RDA) for older adults is still the same for all adults age 18 and over, recent research suggests that protein requirements increase with age, and that people over 65 should consume 1.0-1.2 grams of protein for each kilogram of body weight each day (the current RDA for all adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram). High-quality protein is best, which comes from animal sources such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy products. Animal products are high in the amino acid leucine, which helps to build muscle tissue.

You should know: The answer above provides general health information that is not intended to replace medical advice or treatment recommendations from a qualified healthcare professional.

See more helpful articles:

Staying Fit in Your Golden Years: Best Exercises for Seniors

Best Exercises for Baby Boomers

Improving Your Posture: Simple Stretches That Work

Answered by Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.