Dear Mayo Clinic:
I have heard that we lose bone mass as we age, but what about muscle mass? Is that also a normal part of aging? Does exercise slow the progression or is muscle loss inevitable?
It is very common to lose muscle mass as we age. Although all of us will have some degree of muscle loss over time, how much muscle is lost and how fast it happens depends a lot on how well we take care of our bodies. Staying active and exercising regularly can significantly slow muscle loss due to aging.
The process of losing muscle mass as we grow older is called aging sarcopenia. It begins around the age of 25, but it becomes much more noticeable after age 65. As we lose muscle mass, our bodies get weaker. As muscle loss progresses, particularly after 65, it can limit our ability to take care of ourselves. Simple tasks like getting dressed, using the bathroom and walking can become difficult when muscles are weak.
Also, as muscle decreases, it can become more difficult to maintain balance. Our walking speed slows, and the risk of falls and broken bones increases. That's significant because research has shown that if an individual older than 65 falls and breaks a bone, it has the potential to substantially lower overall life expectancy. In addition, muscle weakness has been associated with a variety of other diseases. For example, there appears to be a strong association between sarcopenia due to aging and heart disease.
Fortunately, it is within our power to combat this natural process of muscle loss. With exercise and an active lifestyle, we can begin to bring some muscle back. And the really good news is that exercise can help at any age. Several studies have compared people between 70 and 80 years old with people 20 to 30 years old engaging in the same regimen: a strengthening exercise program with weight lifting for 12 weeks. Researchers evaluated the participants' strength before and after the program and found that the amount of strength gain in both groups was similar, despite their age difference. So it is never too late, or too early, to work on protecting your muscle mass.
Specifically, to decrease the effects of sarcopenia and slow the loss of muscle mass, a good guideline is to engage in strengthening exercises twice a week. The exercises should include eight to ten repetitions of each major muscle group. Wait at least 48 hours between exercise sessions to allow your muscles to recover. If you can move up to doing the exercises three times a week, that is an excellent goal to set and achieve.
Combining strengthening exercises with aerobic exercise, as well as stretching and balance exercises, can increase the benefit to your muscles even more. An added advantage is that this type of regular physical activity can promote heart, bone, metabolic and mental health, too. Before you get moving, though, talk to your doctor to decide on an individual exercise program that best fits your needs.
Loss of muscle mass is a process that comes with aging, but you have the power to control it. Regularly making time to fit exercise into your schedule is well worth it. You will see long-term benefits not only in strength, but also in your flexibility and balance, and improvement in your overall fitness, health and — particularly important — your quality of life.
— Carmen Terzic, M.D., Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.