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How Easily Muscle Wastage Occurs As We Age, and What We can do About It

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Working hard for the muscle

Photo by Ryan Snaadt on Unsplash

Photo by Ryan Snaadt on Unsplash

No matter your age, you must have a plan of action to retain your muscle

Something that is always in the back of my mind is muscle loss as we age.

Throughout my 30s, I trained hard and long enough to take on bodybuilding for a short period.

Although I’m not at that level anymore, I enjoy lifting weights more than any other exercise.

But I have noticed during my early 40s that it’s becoming much harder for me to train hard as I once did. Perhaps there are several factors because we’ve had several lockdowns, and the gym was unavailable for many months. The lack of consistency probably did not work in my favour (or anyone else!).

Also, high stress, working long hours and being a bread-winning mum mess with my energy levels.

It can all accumulate into a lack of energy, drive and care.

Maybe this has occurred for you over the years — or perhaps you’ve had injury or surgery to recover from. All of these factors must be taken into consideration when it comes to building muscle.

Loss of muscle mass and strength is accelerated with age. Muscle strength loss is usually lost at a far greater rate than the muscle itself.

Why do we lose muscle as we age?

I hate to say this, but muscle loss with age is inevitable.

Older muscles tend to contract inefficiently due to a decline in calcium ions within the muscle fibre.

Age also reduces the muscle’s structural change and ability to remain in a firm, binding, force-generating state. That means muscle contractions become weaker.

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Stress-related DNA damage also occurs when we age, which will decline mitochondrial function, leading to insufficient production of the ATP needed for muscle contractions.

There are also changes to slow and fast-twitch muscle fibres—our ability to conduct explosive movements like sprinting and jumping decreases with age, reducing muscle strength.

Throughout our lifetime, our nerves constantly undergo muscle gain and loss cycles. If you work your muscles by repeating movements with greater tension, the more nerve-muscle connections activate to support the muscle. The saying goes, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it,’ which means the more you use your muscles, the more neuromuscular connections develop, leading to improved strength.

However, if you are sedentary, the opposite will apply. That will further reduce the nerve functioning and deteriorate the muscle & nerve connections.

Young people will have a balance of muscle loss and gain, but older individuals will have more of a decline — although that’s based on the activity levels of an older individual.

Unfortunately, motor neuron connections will tend to die as age progresses, as well as the reduced links to the muscle fibres, making the interaction between the brain and muscle result in a lower force, speed and declining performance.

Can it get any worse than this for us older adults?

Let me tell you, now is the best time to keep working hard in the gym and lifting weights!

Muscles that are active release many biochemical signals that promote the growth of motor neuron fibres, forcing them to form more and more connections to muscle and enhance the transmission.

It’s a bit like your brain learning a new skill. Those neurons keep growing and growing.

These instances lead to better control of the muscle, increased muscle contractions strength, and somewhat of a halt to the usual effects of aging muscles.

Here is some good news, based on data from lifelong athletes. The research indicates that regular exercise in those critical later years profoundly improves muscle strength and functioning.

So, there is hope for my older friends. But we have to train hard regularly to attain those benefits.

The best way to increase communication between your nerves, muscles and nervous system is to keep lifting weights as you age.

This is your most important strategy to fend off deterioration of health, loss of bone density, and increase health and longevity. You will be thrilled you kept up the hard work well into your 70s, 80s and beyond!

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