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How to combat the effect ageing has on our muscles

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

I don’t know about you, but I’m steadily becoming more and more paranoid about growing older (maybe it’s the fact that I’m turning 40 next year!). I’m often amazed at the differences I observe in my older clients that I see in private practice. Some of them still dance 3 times a week and fly kites in their free time while others struggle to bend down to tie their shoe laces. This made me wonder: Is how I age predetermined by my genetics or do I have a say in this affair?

Why do old people lose their muscles? You can reduce this effect!

For this article I specifically investigated what happens to our muscular systems and why we seem to lose muscle strength and power as we age. I won’t lie, it was rather depressing to read about all the things that may be in my future. The good news is that I’ve come to the conclusion that, while we all will grow old, there are plenty of things that we can do to maintain our strength and performance.

In this article:

  • What happens to our muscles and tendons as we age?

  • Is it possible to avoid these changes?

  • What triggers our bodies to build muscle?

  • The role of chronic inflammation

  • Vit D is also important

  • In summary

What happens to our muscles and tendons as we age?

The things that I list in this section all relate to the average person. The exciting news is that this does not have to be you! But first, here’s a list of changes that happen with age:

  • On average we can lose around 0.37% (for women) and 0.47 % (for men) of our lean muscle mass per year. For people over the age of 75 this rate increases to 0.64-0.70% per year for women and 0.80-0.98% for men.

  • Our muscle fibres reduce in number and in size. We seem to be specifically prone to losing Type 2 (fast twitch) muscle fibres. These are the main fibres that that we use when we perform quick strong movements. Their loss may explain why so many older people struggle to get up off the floor or climb stairs.

  • Studies in rats have shown that older muscle also forms fibrosis or scar tissue between muscle fibres which may explain why we tend to get stiffer as we age.

  • You tend to find more fat cells between the muscles fibres of older people.

  • There’s a reduction in the number of mitochondria within our muscles cells. Think of mitochondria as the batteries of the cells. They produce the energy for the contractions.

  • Our tendons lose some of their stiffness so that they become less effective at propelling us forward when we run or walk.

  • The number of nerve endings that supply a specific muscle reduces and the nerves no longer optimally activate the muscles.

Is it possible to avoid these changes?

Wroblewski et al (2011) investigated muscle mass and body composition in masters athletes. They found that chronic intense exercise (more than 4 sessions a week) preserved lean muscle mass into old age despite the body’s total body fat increasing. The increase in total body fat did not lead to fatty infiltration into the muscles themselves.

The researchers concluded that the declines in muscle mass previously thought to be a natural part of aging, was more likely due to lifestyle choices e.g. a sedentary lifestyle and poor nutrition.

McKendry et al. (2018) supported these findings in their recent review and meta-analysis. They concluded that the current evidence suggests that chronic exercise training preserves physical function, muscular strength and body fat levels in old age similar to that of young, healthy individuals.

Piasecki et al (2016) found that, despite the fact that master athletes experience a drop in the number of nerve endings that supply their muscles (similar to sedentary old people), they still managed to preserve their muscle mass and performance.

In a nutshell: It is possible to avoid some of the changes that has previously been contributed to “natural again”. Others may be unavoidable, but we may be able to reduce their impact through regular exercise and eating the right stuff.

What triggers our bodies to build muscle?

There are 2 main things that act as triggers for our bodies to build new muscle. The first is exercise and the second is when we eat protein.

When we eat protein (e.g. meat, eggs, beans etc.) our bodies break it down into its simplest form namely amino acids. Our muscles then use these amino acids to build new muscle cells. It’s easy to see why it’s important to make sure that we eat enough protein during the day.

When we’re young, the presence of these amino acids in our blood is enough to kick-start the muscle building process. Interestingly, this does not seem to be the case for older adults.

Researchers think that this is mainly due to our cells becoming more insulin resistant with age. If our cells don’t absorb insulin properly, it can’t build new muscle despite there being enough amino acids floating around.

This is where exercise can make a big difference. Not only does it stimulate your muscles to grow stronger, but it can also decrease your insulin resistance.  Researchers have found that, if older adults perform a bout of exercise shortly before eating a meal, their muscles responds just like young muscles.

Fujita et al. (2007) even found that the positive effect of the exercise bout carried over to the next day!

Not enough research has yet been done to provide us with specific guidelines, but I would suggest that you aim to do at least 5 sessions of moderately hard aerobic exercise a week. This can include swimming, cycling, walking, running or any other exercise that makes you breathe harder. You’ll see even greater benefits if you can also include a couple of strength and flexibility training sessions per week.

In a nutshell: If we eat enough protein and exercise regularly, we can preserve our muscle strength and performance much better than people who follow sedentary lifestyles. You can read more about how to use exercise and protein together for maximum gains.

The role of chronic inflammation

Ageing is often accompanied by inflammatory disorders, slight elevations in circulating pro-inflammatory mediators and decreases in anti-inflammatory cytokines which result in chronic low-grade inflammation which has been shown to enhance muscle loss in older people.

Strategies that decrease chronic low grade inflammation e.g. antioxidant supplements and taking omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to increase muscle volume and strength in the elderly.

Other things that has been shown to contribute to low grade inflammation include smoking, alcohol, high sugar diets, processed food and stress. These are all things that are within your power to change!

Vit D is also important

Vit D is important to maintain strong bones, prevent muscle wasting and maintain our immune systems. If you don’t get in contact with the sun on a daily basis and/or always wear very strong sunblock, you may be at risk of being Vit D deficient.

Food like eggs do contain Vit D, but it’s very difficult to get enough through your diet. Speak to your GP if you think that you may be lacking in Vit D. I don’t like swallowing tablets, but luckily you can get a mouth spray (in the UK) that I use in the winter.

In summary:

We can reduce the negative effect aging has on our muscles and tendons if we:

  • Exercise regularly;

  • eat enough protein;

  • take steps to avoid things that cause chronic low level inflammation;

  • and make sure that our Vit D levels are topped up regularly.

Need more help with your injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at SIP online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.

About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Masters Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn or ReasearchGate.


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