Our muscle mass and strength decline with age, making us susceptible to frailty, falls, disability, disease, and a shorter lifespan. While muscle loss increases dramatically in our 60s, it begins as early as our 30s. The sooner we prioritize muscle strength and mass, the better!
Read on to learn why muscle mass is so important to our overall health and how to build more.
Why Muscle Mass So Important as We Age
Our muscles account for over 50% of our body mass. Muscle mass decline, or sarcopenia, is unfortunately part of aging. If we don’t optimize our muscle mass when we’re younger, it’s harder to make gains later. That said, the best day to start increasing muscle mass is today, regardless of our age.
Why is muscle mass so important? It’s vital for metabolic health as well as movement and balance. Muscles are highly metabolically active tissues that help us use glucose and control glucose levels. When we lose muscle mass, we’re at higher risk of diabetes. Worse, sarcopenia also increases risks of poor health outcomes after injury or surgery, loss of function, disability, and a premature death.
The good news is that just an hour of resistance exercises each week greatly reduces risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and mortality. Strength training twice a week is a great goal.
How to Start Building Muscle
We have many options for building muscle including free weights, machines, bands, and isometric exercises. These exercises complement cardiovascular workouts like walking, running, swimming, hiking, climbing, dancing, and team sports. It can be overwhelming to get started if we haven’t done strength training before. The initial step is the hardest for many, but it’s crucial to get started as soon as possible, says Personal Trainer Zach Martin.
“Getting a personal trainer is probably the best way to start or joining a group setting,” Martin says. “Being part of a community really keeps people coming back. It will get easier as you keep doing it, build a pattern and find a support system.”
Fitness and community centers offer a variety of classes, machines, and free weights. Most will also have a personal trainer to help you with exercises and accountability. Explore places near your or where your friends are members. A trainer can help you:
- Set goals for muscle strength and mass.
- Choose exercises based on health goals.
- Structure workouts to avoid injuries and overtraining.
- Determine the right weights, repetitions, and sets for each exercise.
- Recommend classes and cardio that are complementary and fun.
“You need to find something that you enjoy doing that will keep you coming back,” adds Martin. “That’s the key. A lot of older people like to socialize, they like to talk to people while they work out. They can always talk to an employee at the gym to point them to certain class, or certain exercises, or a certain time of the day when there are people their age.”
Some of us prefer to exercise alone and that’s fine once we have guidance and proper form, so we don’t get injured. While free weight training can be better for building muscle than machines because it activates more muscles, it’s not the best choice if we have balance issues or other limitations.
We can also use YouTube or other social media channels for research stage, to learn new exercises, and to get inspiration. Most fitness professionals have channels where they demonstrate exercises and share workout routines. Watching someone else can help reduce fear of new machines and exercises.
Building Leg Muscles Is Key for Balance and Longevity
Regardless of where we decide to workout most, it’s critical that we get full-body workouts that exercise all the major muscles in the legs – the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals, and calf muscles. Balance training is as important as aerobic conditioning, resistance training, and high-intensity exercise. We need them all. Frailty, weakness, and loss of balance cause falls which greatly increase our risk of injury and death.
“Each fall becomes progressively harder to recover from,” explains Howard J. Luks, MD, an orthopedic and sports medicine specialist and surgeon. “Eventually, you might fracture your wrist, shoulder, or hip. Sadly, 50% of you might die within a year of suffering a hip fracture.”
Younger people need to prioritize leg muscles during resistance training too. Our calf muscles deteriorate from sarcopenia first, Dr. Luks adds. Plus, building leg muscles will impact our metabolism the most.
Dr. Luks says many people he talks to are worried about hurting their backs or something else when exercising, but the risk of not exercising and building muscle mass far outweighs that concern. Exercise doesn’t wear out your joints faster or cause arthritis.
“Well, we know that exercise does not worsen osteoarthritis," Dr. Luks says. “Exercise has been proven to be the most effective treatment for early and moderate osteoarthritis of our joints.”
High Protein Intake Crucial for Building Muscle
While we work to build muscle, we need to give our bodies the proper fuel. Our protein needs are higher when we’re older and as we work to increase muscle mass, explains Dr. Luks.
We need 20-30 grams of protein per meal if we’re average size and eating three meals a day. Protein sources may vary, but we’ll ideally eat meat, eggs, and milk to get leucine, an amino acid that skeletal muscles use for energy during exercise. A registered dietician can help us choose the best foods for our bodies, health goals, and dietary choices.
Lastly, if we have a history of heart disease or shortness of breath, it’s a good idea to talk with a doctor or cardiologist before starting resistance exercises and strength training.