Sarcopenia, also known as muscle loss, is a common condition that affects 10% of adults who are over 50 years old.
While it can decrease life expectancy and quality of life, there are actions you can take to prevent and even reverse the condition.
Although some of the causes of sarcopenia are a natural consequence of aging, others are preventable. In fact, a healthy diet and regular exercise can reverse sarcopenia, increasing lifespan and quality of life.
What Is Sarcopenia?
Sarcopenia literally means “lack of flesh.” It’s a condition of age-associated muscle degeneration that becomes more common in people over the age of 50. After middle age, adults lose 3% of their muscle strength every year, on average. This limits their ability to perform many routine activities. Unfortunately, sarcopenia also shortens life expectancy in those it affects, compared to individuals with normal muscle strength.
Sarcopenia is caused by an imbalance between signals for muscle cell growth and signals for teardown. Cell growth processes are called “anabolism,” and cell teardown processes are called “catabolism”. For example, growth hormones act with protein-destroying enzymes to keep muscle steady through a cycle of growth, stress or injury, destruction and then healing. This cycle is always occurring, and when things are in balance, muscle keeps its strength over time.
However, during aging, the body becomes resistant to the normal growth signals, tipping the balance toward catabolism and muscle loss. Although aging is the most common cause of sarcopenia, other factors can also trigger an imbalance between muscle anabolism and catabolism.
Four Factors That Accelerate Muscle Loss
- Immobility, Including a Sedentary Lifestyle
- Unbalanced Diet
- Severe Stress
Exercise Can Reverse Sarcopenia
The strongest way to fight sarcopenia is to keep your muscles active. Combinations of aerobic exercise, resistance training, and balance training can prevent and even reverse muscle loss. At least two to four exercise sessions weekly may be required to achieve these benefits.
All types of exercise are beneficial, but some more than others.
1. Resistance Training
Resistance training includes weightlifting, pulling against resistance bands or moving part of the body against gravity. When you perform resistance exercise, the tension on your muscle fibers results in growth signals that lead to increased strength. Resistance exercise also increases the actions of growth-promoting hormones. These signals combine to cause muscle cells to grow and repair themselves, both by making new proteins and by turning on special muscle stem cells called “satellite cells,” which reinforce existing muscle.
Thanks to this process, resistance exercise is the most direct way to
increase muscle mass and prevent its loss.
2. Fitness Training
Sustained exercise that raises your heart rate, including aerobic exercise and endurance training, can also control sarcopenia. Most studies of aerobic exercise for the treatment or prevention of sarcopenia have also included resistance and flexibility training as part of a combination exercise program.
Walking can also prevent and even reverse sarcopenia, and it’s an activity most people can do for free, anywhere they live.
Exercise is the most effective way to reverse sarcopenia. Resistance (Strength) training is best to increase muscle mass and strength. However, combination exercise programs and walking also fight sarcopenia. At DBM, we suggest staying fit at every age and not allowing sarcopenia to set in. But, it is never too late to get started with your strength training, especially under the guidance of certified personal trainer Debbie Martilotta.
In part by Matthew Thorpe, MD, PhD