Muscle Mass and Aging

As a coach, much of my time is spent with folks between 60 and 85 years old. It has been a tremendous gift to learn from these clients not only regarding specifics for their strength coaching and training but for their general lessons on life. Ageism within our culture often presents older adults as weak and frail. As a consequence, many fear that older adults might strain themselves from lifting weights, but this is far from true. If you’re a trainer/coach working with this demographic or an older adult yourself, the following is information to consider when initiating or designing exercise for this population.

Age, iron, and adaptation

Age doesn’t define ability in isolation, but time spent at specific tasks or in specific positions can influence what an individual is capable of at first. For example, one client in her 60’s may have a life-long history working at a desk, while another may have been running marathons or competing in lifting competitions for the past decade (or for her entire lifetime!). These two women are not only different due to haphazard life events, but because of their history of physical activity, shown, for example, by differences in their soft tissue and skeletal structure. In fact, older adults who stay active may not be all that different than their younger counterparts because much of the sarcopenia (muscle loss) that we associate with aging is hypothesized to be a result of disuse rather than of age in isolation. In another study, older triathletes and older sedentary folks were scanned for muscle and bone density. The athletic older adults had muscle mass that far out weighed their inactive peer group. In this study, “declines may signal the effect of chronic disuse rather than muscle aging. Evaluation of masters athletes removes disuse as a confounding variable in the study of lower-extremity function and loss of lean muscle mass. This maintenance of muscle mass and strength may decrease or eliminate the falls, functional decline, and loss of independence that are commonly seen in aging adults.” This data tells us that older folks need not fret about lifting damaging their bodies but rather they should pursue it perhaps with all the more vigor because it may help prevent falls, improve survival from illnesses, and improve general life quality

Disclaimer: This article doesn’t take the place of advice by a qualified health professional. What’s appropriate for one individual may be counterproductive for another. If you are suspicious of an illness, injury and/or are in constant pain I encourage you to see a doctor and a therapist to get a proper diagnosis and rule out illness. Illness, pain, and injuries are complicated topics that have a variety of causes and presentations. You should see your doctor before beginning any exercise program. I am not qualified to prescribe treatments, diagnose, or assess medical symptoms or conditions. This article and any information contained there-in is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice.  

Brumitt, J., & Cuddeford, T. (2015). CURRENT CONCEPTS OF MUSCLE AND TENDON ADAPTATION TO STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING. International journal of sports physical therapy10(6), 748-59.

Cho, S. I., & An, D. H. (2014). Effects of a Fall Prevention Exercise Program on Muscle Strength and Balance of the Old-old Elderly. Journal of physical therapy science26(11), 1771-4.

Michael J Mueller, Katrina S Maluf; Tissue Adaptation to Physical Stress: A Proposed “Physical Stress Theory” to Guide Physical Therapist Practice, Education, and Research, Physical Therapy, Volume 82, Issue 4, 1 April 2002, Pages 383–403, https://doi.org/10.1093/ptj/82.4.383

Wroblewski, A. P., Amati, F., Smiley, M. A., Goodpaster, B., & Wright, V. (2011). Chronic Exercise Preserves Lean Muscle Mass in Masters Athletes. The Physician and Sportsmedicine,39(3), 172-178. doi:10.3810/psm.2011.09.1933

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