One of the things people often over look in fitness, especially as we age, is the importance of maintaining muscle mass. Everyone wants to lose fat. We have developed an entire industry around that concept, but the critical role muscle plays to that effect is often lost in the process. As we age, our body starts to lose muscle mass, a process called sarcopenia. This usually starts in our 40’s and tends to accelerate with age. It varies from person to person and depends a bit upon how much muscle one has to start with. Regardless, muscle mass is slowly lost with time.
So what’s the significance of this? Let’s start at the metabolic level. The number one determining factor of an individual’s basal metabolic rate is their lean muscle mass. We all know muscle burns a lot of calories during exercise, but when we are at rest, muscle still continues to burn calories as it works to maintain its size and integrity. This is the combustible engine of your body burning away calories while we sit in front of TV watching American Karaoke. Obviously, less muscle means less calorie burning. So as we age, if we don’t maintain our muscle mass, we burn less of what we consume meaning the extra calories are converted into our fat stores. So, any fat loss program that does not address maintaining muscle mass is doomed to fail as biology will inevitably overcome whatever dietary fad du jour one partakes in.
Now let’s examine this further. If we maintain most of our strength as we age, we can continue to have an active lifestyle well into our advanced years; furthermore, strong muscles create a stable musculoskeletal system which will lead to fewer injuries from activity. Anyone older than 35 should realize how easy it is to get an injury from relatively minor activity or even with no activity at all! Those who participate in muscle strengthening not only increase the size and strength of the muscle, but increase the strength of all the supportive structures as well which includes the bones and tendons. Strong bones and tendons means stable joints which becomes very important with age as joints are one of the biggest sources of morbidity as we age. Notice what else was included. Bone. We all lose bone density as we age, and the single biggest determining factor of bone density is challenging the bone with load carrying. We could do that by becoming morbidly obese, but that is undesirable to say the least. No, the best way to do this is to stress those bones with a weight training program. A stronger skeletal frame means less chance for fractures. Even with modern medicine, a hip fracture in the elderly still carries a 30% risk of mortality, even after surgery. So clearly, the best solution is to avoid the fracture in the first place. Believe it or not, one of the best ways to prevent arthritis is to STAY ACTIVE!! Arthritis is not caused by overusing a joint; rather the reverse is often true. You can see this anecdotally. The elderly who complain the most of sore joints are generally some of the most inactive people you will encounter. Once the joint pain sets in, it becomes hard to maintain a fitness program, so again, the best solution is to STAY ACTIVE so that the joint pain never gets a chance to take hold.
What are some of the other benefits that may be a bit more subtle? Studies have shown that as we lose muscle mass, we also lose cognitive function, even when adjusted for age related changes. The reason behind this is a bit uncertain, but if one wants to keep one’s wits and memories as they age, they need to not only challenge the mind, but the body. Weight training is actually heart beneficial because it is somewhat akin to a tabata exercise which increases the heart rate in short bursts. This strengthens the heart and leads to a lower resting heart rate, a good thing. Stronger leaner muscle will cause more fat loss which is the best way to prevent age related diabetes mellitus (type II). Even beyond the physical is the emotional benefit. If one is active, there is a sense of pride and accomplishment that accompanies the activity. How many elderly do we know who have no sense of pride or achievement after they retire? Staying fit and strong into one’s older years takes work, and with that work comes a better physique, and sense of pride. Obviously the leaner toned body will be a constant reminder of what one has achieved.
A few years ago I took my family to a big national water park. We had to wait in line to get a water raft from people finishing the ride. As it came close to our turn, we saw a family splash down in the landing pool with all the typical screams of joy. When we approached the pool, we saw two kids about 8-10 years old hop out, their very fit mother who looked to be in her 30’s, but even better out hopped grandma! I made pointed this out to my kids then and there as this was indeed one of those life lessons we could all benefit from. This grandmother was able to ride one of the thrill rides at a water park with her grandkids, and able to experience the joy WITH them as a participant, not as a spectator. I have relatives of the same age who struggle to walk to the mail box and couldn’t even DREAM of doing such a thing. Just by staying active, this grandmother was not only flexible and strong, she could walk throughout the water park in the summer Texas heat, and ride the rides with her daughter and grandkids. I can’t think of a better reason to maintain muscle mass as we age than seeing what this woman was able to experience in her retirement years. Hopefully, we can all do the same.
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