After age 30, many of us start to lose 3-8% of muscle mass per decade. Age-related muscle loss and strength is called sarcopenia and is a natural part of the aging process. However, muscle loss (also known as muscle atrophy) can happen faster due to poor nutrition, after an injury, illness, or any prolonged period of inactivity. Muscle atrophy occurs when muscle cells shrink due to fewer and smaller muscle fibers and is mostly driven by inactivity. The results of less muscle mass are greater weakness and less mobility, both of which may increase your risk of falls and fractures.
Individuals ages 65+ years are especially vulnerable to muscle atrophy, since healing takes longer as we age. Unless older individuals have worked on retaining muscle mass and strength, recovering from dramatic muscle loss can take longer than someone who is younger.
Muscle atrophy doesn’t happen to everyone after a physical setback. How downtime affects you depends on your prior health, activity level, and amount of muscle mass going into the period of inactivity. For example, women and men who are regularly active have a much easier time preventing muscle atrophy even if they are off their feet for a while.
Some frustrating news.
It actually doesn’t take long for the body to lose muscle that you worked hard to build. Your bicep won't go "poof" since the muscle fibers are still there, but in about 2-3 weeks of no training, you will notice a significant reduction in strength and power. A recent study in the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine found that older men who did eight weeks of strength training lost about 25% of their muscle gains after they stopped training for two weeks. Other studies have shown muscle loss after three to four weeks. Most of the research agrees - the more muscle you have going into a period of inactivity, the quicker you can get it back (this is due to the neural pathways you created in your central nervous system when you started weight training).
So, what can you do to prevent muscle atrophy?
Jump start your recovery.
If you know you’re going to be inactive for a period of time (i.e., from an upcoming surgery), then you can work to prevent muscle loss. If you’re already active, continue what you’re doing! If you’re not a regular exerciser, then use the time you have to get started. Additionally, make sure you’re getting enough protein and calories, since both have been shown to preserve and enhance muscle growth.
The more in shape you are going into surgery, the better shape you will be coming out, and the less chance you have of lasting muscle loss.
Make your move.
As quickly as you can lose muscle due to being off your feet, you can also get it back. First seek advice from your doctor. He or she can recommend an appropriate program to rebuild muscle loss. Course of action usually will include physical therapy, strength training, cardio workouts, flexibility exercises, and a nutrition plan that may increase protein and calories-both which contribute to muscle gain.
So many different activities can increase and maintain muscle mass and strength.
Weight training is ideal and can include workouts with dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, and resistance bands. Other muscle-building exercises include swimming, walking, rowing, cycling (stationary or regular bike). Almost all exercises that incorporate the upper and lower body will help you build muscle!
However, the BEST exercise is the one YOU can do safely and consistently. Some individuals may want to recruit a trainer (hint, hint) to help if they are concerned about safety and\or need the support. Trainers can work with you on your goals, needs, and will help keep an eye on your limitations to ensure your safety.
So hire me! Just kidding (kind of).
Seriously. All individuals, including older adults, can protect themselves from muscle atrophy. Remember, before embarking on an exercise plan, consult your physician. Something else to keep in mind. This is not a sprint, so baby steps are best to get back to where you were or where you want to be strength-wise.
And remember those “exercise snacks.” Any activity is better than no activity.