IT'S not just the accumulated Covid stone or lockdown belly that are lingering side effects of pandemic life. Experts are warning that, among the middle aged and older, a lack of activity by some in recent months may have resulted in accelerated loss muscle, something that not only affects how toned you look but can impact your health.
After the age of 40, our muscles begin to waste away at a rate of 5-10% per decade (more steeply in men as they have a greater amount of muscle to begin with) and, by age 80, most people typically have about 40% less muscle mass than they did in their prime. But when we are inactive for even short periods of time, that deterioration spirals.
Researchers at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease asked 28 healthy and usually active people with an average age of 25 (they each took 10,000 steps per day before participating in the trial)
to cut their activity by more than 80% to around 1500 steps a day for 14 days. Their findings, published in the journal Diabetologia, revealed staggering changes in body composition with whole-body lean muscle mass dropping by 0.36kg and leg muscle mass falling by 0.21kg. After the trial, subjects were unable to run as far or at the same intensity as they had done previously because their cardio-respiratory fitness levels had plummeted and they also gained total body fat. All within two weeks.
But it’s not entirely doom and gloom. The good news is you can rebuild some buffness even into your 80s provided you are prepared to put in some effort. While some skeletal muscle fibres wither away as we age and can’t be replaced, more so if we don’t use them, others stay alive but shrink. It is these atrophied fibres that can be increased in size with appropriate workouts.
Gentle walking or running, while important for cardiovascular health, won’t cut the mustard when it comes to boosting strength. Studies by Jamie McPhee, professor of musculoskeletal physiology at Manchester Metropolitan University, have shown that extra stress on the muscles “is the crucial stimulus that causes them to adapt and actually increase in size” which, in non-scientific terms, means you need to lift at least your own body weight, if not dumbbells and weights, to make progress.
Ray Lally, the Happy Fitness Guy from Cork, says it needn’t be overwhelming. “Exercise such as lunges and squats work the major muscles in the legs and buttocks and are fantastic for developing strength,” he says. “And resistance bands are a great way int improving strength at home.” Although, do remember you are never too old to lift weights. In a series of studies at the
University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, researchers asked a group of 65-75 year olds to embark on twice-weekly supervised, full-body resistance training designed to boost strength. Twelve weeks in there were assigned to continue sessions once, twice or three times a week with a control group doing nothing. After six months, even the once a week weight-lifters had better strength and significant improvements in markers of health including better body composition (a higher muscle to fat ratio), lower cholesterol and better blood sugar control.
Making sure you get enough protein will also help prevent muscle decline. A review of evidence from McMaster University in Canada found getting enough protein – which is 1.6 grams per kilogram of your body weight per day or about 100 grams of protein a day for someone weighing 10 stones – significantly boosts the effects of strength training in the over 40s. Those who increased to this amount improved strength by an extra 10% and gained about 25% more muscle mass compared to controls.
More protein didn’t produce bigger gains and you don’t need to take supplements – an adequate intake is achievable by eating two eggs for breakfast, a cheese sandwich on two rounds of wholemeal bread for lunch and a small fillet steak or chicken breast with a chickpea and quinoa salad for dinner.
So, how to get stronger as you age? Here, we look at what you can do:
You need to be fairly fit to start with (and don’t try it if you aren’t), but McPhee’s studies on masters athletes in Britain and Ireland “have shown that sprinting is high intensity enough to stress the body and promote muscle adaptation and growth.”
You are not cheating by starting with shifting just your own bodyweight. Include a good variety of plank exercises, v-sits and other core muscle moves as well as lunges, burpees and squats.
Aim for two weekly sessions in which you lift 65-75% of your one-rep maximum weight for eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise, repeating a circuit three times. Include moves that work your glutes, hamstrings, core, back, hips and shoulders such as weighted squats and lunges, overhead push press, forward and lateral lunges, single-leg deadlift with a kettlebell, shoulder press and single-arm row.
Hormonal shifts during this decade (testosterone dropping in men, oestrogen in women) have an impact on body composition. An analysis of 39 studies published in
Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise showed that, among more than 1,300 adults aged 50 plus, muscle mass could be increased by an average of nearly 2.5 pounds in five months with weight training.
“If you haven’t started already, this is really the age you need to be lifting weights,” says the celebrity trainer Matt Roberts. “Keep doing some cardio, but the emphasis should switch to more resistance work.”
recovery from injury takes much longer at this age. Continue with the bodyweight exercises from the 50s decade, using weights where you can.
Use a chair if you need balance for lunges, perform squats against a wall or with support and a plank with knees on the ground). Roberts suggests adding kettlebell swings which work the muscles in your hips, core, thighs and shoulders and split squats (with one leg in front of the other) which works the quads, glutes, and hamstrings but also builds balance and hip flexibility.
McPhee has found in his studies that balance deteriorates dramatically with age and that this is partly down to poor control of the muscles we have as our brain’s control of movement declines. “Yoga or Tai Chi will help muscle strength, balance and coordination,” he says.
If you’ve used weights before, continue and keep them relatively heavy, progressing if you can. “The longer you keep lifting weights, the better the outcome for your health,” Roberts says.
A study last year found that five to eight sets of three-minute high-intensity ‘sprint walking’ walking followed by a two-minute low-intensity walking recovery increased thigh muscle size and strength in older adults after 17 weeks.