It is said that there are few certainties in life, other than death and taxes. To many, there is a third certainty: you will get weak and smaller as you age. To the casual onlooker, it appears as if the muscles have turned into fat. Muscles,however, can no sooner convert into fat than coal can convert into diamonds. What really happens is that without stimulation or exercise, muscles atrophy or shrink. The loss of muscle tissue, which is active metabolically, lowers the resting metabolic rate. This lower of the resting metabolism, or how many calories you burn at rest, sets the stage for increased body fat levels. The loss of muscle is bad not only for aesthetic reasons, but also because it leads to weakness and frailty that can negatively affect quality of life. Most people in nursing homes are there not because of mental deficits, but because they are too weak for care for themselves. Recent studies confirm that loss of muscle with age is a portent to impending death. After age 40,the average person who doesn’t exercise loses about 5% of muscle mass per decade.This loss of muscle accelerates after age 65 without an exercise intervention.
As to the precise cause of this age-related muscle loss, science has found a variety of culprits. These include a loss of neuromuscular function, or the communication between the muscles and the nervous system. When this is lost, strength declines precipitously. Muscle stem cells known as satellite cells also decline in activity and number. The satellite cells in muscle are required for both muscle repair and growth functions, and without adequate satellite cell activity, muscles will atrophy.Muscle fibers themselves decrease in size and number unless activated by resistance exercise,such as weight-training. Without the impetus of exercise, the need for regular stimulation of various anabolic hormones,including testosterone,growth hormone, IGF-1, insulin, also drops off, and these hormones are needed to help maintain muscle mass. Structures that produce energy in cells called mitochondria die off without exercise, and when they go, the cell soon follows. Other processes linked to muscle loss with age include increased oxidative stress, and increased overall body inflammation, both of which are tempered by regular exercise.
Are these age-related changes inevitable? For years, it was thought that once lost, muscle tissue could not be resuscitated. Then studies mainly from Tufts University proved otherwise. These studies of older adults found that when the older people were put on supervised weight-training programs, their strength and much of their muscle responded. A recent study confirms this in older men, and also came to the surprising conclusion that 22 weeks of supervised weight-training in men over age 60 eliminated the age-related muscle and strength deficits between younger and older men. It was as if the clock was turned back from the standpoint of muscle and strength in the older men in this study. The study featured 17 older men, age range, 60 to 71, who were compared with a group of men whose average age was 24.At the start of the study, the older men showed considerable differences in measures of strength and muscle size when compared to the younger men. Both groups trained 3 days a week, using whole body workouts done on machines for 22 weeks. By the 22-week mark, the significant strength and muscle deficits seen in the older men at the start of the study were now completely eliminated, with no significant differences between the young and older men. As such, this study shows that you can gain significant levels of muscle mass and strength, even at advanced ages.
Candow DG, et al. Short-term heavy resistance training eliminates age-related deficits in muscle mass and strength in healthy older males.J Streng Cond Res 2010: in press.
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