Q&A With Brian
Hi Brian, how do you hold onto muscle mass as you age? Regards Duncan Jefferson - WA
The great news Duncan is you’re never too old to build muscle; in fact a 90 year old has nearly the same capacity to create new muscle fibre as a 30 year old. I have a 92 year old client who is a real life example of this fact, with Bonnie increasing her arm curl from 1 kilogram to 4 kilogram in 18 months.
With age does come a deterioration in muscle mass, however age isn’t the monumental influence you’d expect it to be. Studies show generally people lose only about 1 per cent of their muscle mass per year after age 40. There are exceptions to this of course with some diseases resulting in a more rapid muscle loss.
Adopting a more sedentary lifestyle as we tend to do with age, is by far the greatest influence on the speed at which muscle is lost. We find the adage ‘ if you don’t use it, you lose it’ is true, as much of the weakness in older age is preventable if muscles are kept active.
Now we have established you have the potential to not only maintain but to build muscle mass at any age, let’s look at the how.
Your ability to build muscle depends on whether the exercise you’re doing provides the right stimulus to require the muscle to grow. Aerobic based exercise like walking, or stretching based exercise like tai chi, wouldn’t create sufficient stress on the muscle to require them to get any stronger. The muscle will get more efficient, and better at doing the movement but not be required to get any stronger.
Strength training stimulates the muscles to get stronger as they need to be challenged. Lifting weights, powerful Yoga, strength based water work, are examples of exercise which generates stress on the muscle requiring them to grow.
For specifics, I’ve picked the most recent recommendations from the American Heart Association as their guidelines specifically target older adults.
There recommendations state older adults should perform muscle-strengthening exercise at least twice per week, doing at least one set of 10 to 15 repetitions of 8 to 10 exercises that target the major muscle groups of the upper and lower body. The guidelines emphasize that the effort of each lift should be challenging.
To make strength training effective each exercise should feel like you’re working moderately hard or even harder than moderate. How many times you perform an exercise, or the repetition number, is important because it guides you as to how much resistance to use and therefore the effort level you make.
If for example you use a 3 kilogram dumbbell and you do 15 repetitions easily then you need to increase the weight. Increase your weight slowly to avoid injury, but aim to be using a weight where 10 to 15 repetitions is quite a challenge. Please keep in mind all exercise is beneficial, however if you’re objective is to maintain, and/or add muscle, you’ll need to overload the muscle in a way that produces fatigue due to lack of strength not endurance.
With all exercise it’s important to work within your present level of fitness. Correct technique is important to reduce the risk of injury when lifting weights, so I’d recommend using a gymnasium or training facility where you can receive some professional guidance in the correct method of using weight training.