Somewhere in your 30s, you probably began to lose muscle mass at the rate of 0.5 to 1 percent a year. By middle age, you may have lost so much muscle that you’re also losing strength—at the rate of 3 to 5 percent yearly.
This loss of muscle mass, strength, and everyday function is called sarcopenia—and it can be just as deadly as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. In a study published in the July 27, 2021, issue of Gerontology, an international team of researchers analyzed results from more than 100 articles on sarcopenia, involving more than 90,000 people. They found that people with sarcopenia had double the risk of dying.
Conversely, preserving muscle mass and strength can help protect you from chronic conditions and diseases like high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and kidney disease, or reduce their impact if you do get them.
It’s inevitable that aging brings with it some diminishment in muscle mass, strength, and function. But you can dramatically slow that loss. And the younger you start preserving muscle, the easier it is—regaining lost muscle takes a lot more work than protecting muscle.
Fortunately, there are three simple self-care strategies to prevent, stop, or reverse sarcopenia: resistance training, adding more protein to your diet, and taking a nutritional supplement that is proven to help build muscle.
“Use it or lose it” may be a cliché, but it’s also a fact: The No. 1 cause of losing muscle mass is not using your muscles. But that doesn’t mean you have to rush to the gym and lift weights, a type of “resistance training” that many people—particularly seniors—may find intimidating.
Instead, practice these three functional resistance training exercises two or three times a week. In this case, the resistance is your body weight.
These exercises will preserve and build the muscles in your arms, legs, hips, and back that you need for everyday strength and activity.
Bodyweight squat. Find a low chair without an armrest. Stand in front of it, with your back toward the chair and your feet
shoulder-width apart. Slowly bend your legs, keeping your back straight, and lower yourself into the chair. Then stand up slowly. Repeat this exercise 30 times. If you can’t do 30 repetitions (and many people can’t), start with a number you can do and gradually work up to 30. (The same goes for the next exercises.)
Push-up. Lie face down on the floor, placing your hands on the floor on either side of your shoulders. Keep your legs close together. Push up from the ground until your arms are almost fully extended, with the elbows slightly bent. Lower your body until your chest is almost touching the ground. Repeat 10 times. (If you can’t do 10, do as many as possible.) For a less difficult version, rest the lower half of your body on your knees rather than your toes.
Lunge. Keeping your upper body straight and your shoulders back, step forward with one leg, lowering your hips until both knees are bent at a 90o angle. Return to the first position. Repeat 30 times.
Along with resistance training, get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercises, such as a brisk walk for 30 minutes, five times a week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, such as a 25-minute jog, three times a week.
Eat more protein
Protein is the macronutrient out of which muscles are made. (Organs are also made of protein, and bones are 40 percent protein.) The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. (For example, a 175-pound person weighs 80 kilograms and has an RDA of 64 grams of protein.)
The RDA is the minimum amount of protein you need to prevent a protein deficiency, but it is not the optimal amount of protein you need to prevent, stop, or reverse sarcopenia.
A large body of scientific research shows that middle-aged and older people would benefit from a protein intake above the RDA. For preserving and building muscle—particularly in seniors—research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows the optimal intake is 50 percent more protein than the RDA: 1.2 grams (g) per kilogram per day. That’s 96 g for the 175-pounder.
Several studies indicate that 1.6 g may be even better. That’s 128 g daily for a person weighing 175 pounds. (Levels higher than 1.6 g don’t build more muscle or strength.)
To optimize muscle-building, you also need to get protein at every meal. Unlike carbohydrates and fat, the body doesn’t store unused protein for later use, so you need a regular supply. Protein isn’t limited to meat. Good plant-based sources of protein include 4 ounces of tofu (15 g), a cup of whole rolled oats (11 g), a cup of quinoa (8 g), a slice of whole-grain bread (6 g), a handful of nuts (4 g), and a tablespoon of nutritional yeast (4 g). (See the sidebar for a sample meal plan.)
You can add to your daily protein intake with a protein supplement, which typically supplies 20 g per serving. There is a range of products available, such as whey, soy, pea, and pea and rice blends. Follow the dosage recommendation on the label.
The best muscle-building supplement
The single best supplement for building muscle during resistance training is creatine. This supplement works by increasing phosphocreatine, a naturally-occurring compound that produces adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which fuels muscles during exercise. Decades of research show creatine helps build muscle and strength and improves athletic performance.
In a study published in the November 2021 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Canadian researchers gave either creatine or a placebo to 70 older people involved in resistance training. After one year, the people taking creatine had developed an average of five times more muscle density in their lower legs.
Other studies show that creatine helps older people develop more strength, resist fatigue, and improve the performance of “activities of daily living,” like walking up a flight of stairs. Creatine supplementation may also improve cognitive processing—learning, memory, and the ability to use information, according to the scientific paper Creatine and Brain Health, published in the February 2021 issue of Nutrients.
A good daily dose of creatine is 4 to 5 g, in two doses of 2 or 2.5 g.