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Muscle in seniors: how to preserve your muscle mass

Muscle in seniors: how to preserve your muscle mass
Dr. Constance Odom, MD Picture of Dr. Constance Odom, MD

Medically reviewed by

Written by our editorial team.

Last Edited 6 min read


As someone starts to get along in age, especially if it's someone who works a white collar job in an office or is retired, working out and staying fit becomes more of a daunting task, and one that many question if it's even worth all of the struggle and the effort. 


Unfortunately, letting yourself go in your golden years can have quite a few negative drawbacks, but getting back into shape after can still allow you to reap the many benefits of good health. Osteoporosis, which is a condition in which the material that makes up your skeletal structure begins to weaken and deteriorate, is less commonly found in active seniors. Arthritis, the condition which will attack your joint cartilage and synovial membrane, is also found more in sedentary seniors as opposed to those who maintain and active lifestyle. 


Another thing that many of us become acutely aware of us time goes on, is that balance begins to go downhill as we age, often times as a result of the deterioration of our muscle mass and tone. Unfortunately, as many as twenty eight to forty five percent of elders fall each year due to the decline of their balance, and though some balance loss may be unavoidable as we age, training can certainly take the edge off. Exercising can improve certain symptoms such as the hips and legs becoming weaker, making it hard to walk, a lessened ability to lift the feet, and low blood pressure induced dizziness. 


Pulmonary diseases, which are a group of lung diseases like COPD, obstructive lung disease, and pulmonary fibrosis, are a group of lung diseases that block airflow and make it difficult to breath, and are more commonly found in elderly people. While weight training may not prevent these diseases, some relief of the symptoms that come with these diseases may be possible with strengthening programs that focus on the abdomen and chest muscles.  


Also, it's commonly known and proven that obesity contributes to many diseases. In fact, most of the organs and body systems we have are negatively affected by obesity. Most commonly, obesity can help bring on hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease, and even certain cancers, as well as type two diabetes, which comes with it's own risks like heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, and other dire medical conditions. Physical disability and mobility are also negatively effected, as the weight on the joints can become a major problem.  


Obesity also is shown to affect cognition, memory, comprehension, problem solving, and decision making. These functions naturally deteriorate with age, but studies show that they even more quickly deteriorate in the population affected by obesity, and since proper cognition helps seniors live their later lives to the fullest and allow them to be more independent, this may be the worst effect of obesity. A low intensity program designed to reduced weight and the risk of orthopedic injury may be the best way to do it, but make sure to consult your doctor first. 


On the topic of type two diabetes, even when you have it physical activity remains an important part of treatment, as well as a healthy meal plan. Staying fit and active throughout your life will make you better able to control your diabetes, and make sure to keep your blood glucose levels in the proper range, and is essential to preventing long term complications such as nerve pain and kidney disease. 


Exercise is essential to maintaining your health when you have type two diabetes, with the biggest benefit arguably being that it makes it much easier to control your blood sugar level. People with type two diabetes have too much glucose in their blood,  either because their body doesn't produce enough insulin to process it, or because their body doesn't use insulin properly (insulin resistant).

In either case, exercise can reduce the glucose in your blood. Muscles can use glucose without insulin when you're exercising. In other words, it doesn't matter if you're insulin resistant or if you don't have enough insulin: when you exercise, your muscles get the glucose they need, and in turn, your blood glucose level goes down. If you're insulin resistant, exercise actually makes your insulin more effective; more specifically, your insulin resistance goes down when you exercise and your cells are more effectively able to utilize the glucose that they need. 


Another common problem that could be aided by exercise and weight training is the harrowing call of lower back pain. Now, as a preface, make sure to check with your doctor before beginning an exercise program, as there is a possibility to aggravate your condition. Most of us, at some point, are going to experience some sort of lower back pain. Fortunately, a lot of it can be prevented or alleviated with exercises that help to take the pressure off the back and keep the back healthy. 


The reason that exercises that build muscle around the lower back are so important because the spine is like the mast of a ship, with all sorts of ropes and pulleys supporting it to make sure it doesn't crack under pressure or fall out of place. The same is true with the human spine, if you take it out and put it on the table, it can only really support thirty five pounds on it's own, so we all rely on muscles that attach onto the spine to take the majority of pressure off. When those supporting muscles are weak or imbalanced, the stresses that go through us every day, instead of being absorbed by the muscles the way they should be, they start entering the static structures in the spine, such as the disks and facet joints, which leads to a lot of wear and tear in the spine. By getting the muscles right, we take the pressure off the spine and we make the spine a lot more durable.


But before diving headfirst into weight training, there are some general safety guidelines for seniors. Such as making sure you warm up at least ten minutes before the workout, and cool down for ten minutes after. Stopping immediately if there's pain in the joints, and maintaining a proper posture during all of your exercises is also very important, as is breathing regularly, and avoiding holding your breath while making deliberate, slow movements with the weights. And never forgot to first consult with a doctor before beginning a strength training regimen. And, if possible and you have the means, work with a qualified trainer who can help set a perfect program appropriate for your specific needs. 


In general, a program for seniors to build muscle mass will be similar to that of a younger person who is not conditioned for exercise, although elders may have to make some modifications to those programs. The American College of Sports Medicine, or ACSM, recommends two to three days of strength training per week, incorporating a variety of exercises that work the major muscle groups. You should start with very light resistance and keep the number of exercises and sets to a minimum. Each set should have 10 to 15 reps. As you get stronger, you can slowly increase resistance, as well as the number of sets and exercises.


There are many ways to work the muscles, such as isometric exercise and progressive overload exercise. Isometric workouts involve tensing your muscle without movement. It's a type of strength training in which joint angle and muscle length do not change during contraction, and done in static positions rather than through a range of motion. And within the realm of isometric workouts, you have overcoming and yielding workouts. In overcoming isometrics, the joint and muscle work against an immovable object, while in a yielding isometrics, the joint and muscle are held in a static position while opposing a resistance. For example, overcoming isometric would be something similar to pushing against the side of a wall that you couldn't move, and yielding isometrics would be holding a bench press bar in the air even though it could be moving. 


Progressive overload training dates back at least to Ancient Greece, when legend has it that wrestler Milo of Croton trained by carrying a newborn calf on his back every day until it was fully grown. In this common method of weight training, the muscles are overloaded by attempting to lift at least as much weight as they are capable, and respond by growing larger and stronger. This is then repeated with increasingly heavy weights as the person who is working out gains strength and endurance. Commonly, each exercise is continued to the point of momentary muscular failure, also known as training until failure. This method may not be the best for seniors, as it puts significant stress on your muscles and joints. 


It's important to find the right intensity when exercising for strength, as finding a balance between lifting enough to improve and also not injure yourself is an important one to strike. Generally, as a rule of thumb, you can increase the weight you lift about every two weeks after beginning your senior workout program. You should be able to complete two sets of ten repetitions in good form before increasing the weight though, and completing them with good form means the up for three, down for three count, with one to two minutes between each set. 


As an example, if you find it easy to lift two pounds over your head twenty times in a row, then it's relatively safe to begin using a three pound weight instead, but never progress if you are injured, have been sick and took a break, or if your muscles are just too sore. It is more than okay to begin with very light resistance or none at all, and progressing gradually to avoid injury and soreness. Also, try to exercise at least two to three times a week, and at least forty eight hours between training sessions. And don't forget, senior strength training can be fun, but will only truly allow you to reap the benefits if it is done with regularity, and at the correct intensity. 


The three major areas involved with strength are the upper body, lower body, and your back and trunk area. To reap the most benefits to enjoy all of your normal activities and hobbies, be sure to perform two to three exercises from each group, three times a week, while alternating exercises every week until you have completed all twelve; this will lead to a balanced strength training routine. You can also work on strengthening your core muscles, your abs, for improved posture and balance. 


Lifting weights isn't the only part of putting on more muscle, though, and quite possibly more important is the diet that you eat while you start your weight training career. Protein is the most important thing that you'll consume in this aspect, and the amount of high quality protein you'll need to eat daily in order to maintain long-term muscle mass is going to be likely a bit higher than what you were eating before. You can roughly estimate your daily requirements of protein based on your body weight, diving it in half, and subtracting ten. For example, if you weigh one 160, and then divide that in half to get eighty, and then subtract ten, that will be about seventy grams of protein spread over a day's worth of meals. In short, to slow muscle deterioration, particularly for those heading into their 60's and beyond, high-quality protein is your best weapon. NOTE: If you have renal issues, you should work with your doctor to determine an appropriate daily protein intake for you specific needs.


And while that number may seem daunting, there are certainly many ways to add that bit of extra protein to your diet. Tossing nuts into salads, muffins, pancakes, cookies, or all over vegetables can add a few grams to almost every meal, and you can even just take a handful and have them as a quick snack. Drinking milk with your meals is also an easy way to get a protein boost, or just adding it to your cooking, or drinking milkshakes as a treat. 


Eggs are well known as a great source of protein, but don't have to be limited to having for breakfast. You can hard cook them for salads, casseroles, and veggies. You can beat eggs into mashed potatoes and sauces, and add the cooked whites to foods such as puddings, custards, scrambled eggs, and pancake batter.  Sprinkling cheese on your food is also a good way to inject it with that added protein punch, and adding a slice to your sandwich, sprinkling it on top of grits in the morning and salads at lunch, while adding a cheese sauce to your veggies or grating some on an apple pie can all be easy ways to enjoy the benefit it holds. You can even slap a slice on the cracker, munch on cheese sticks, or just have a nice slice for a snack. 


As seniors age, one of the first foods that tend to go out of the window is meat, because of it's difficulty and toughness when it comes to chewing or time to prepare, but meat protein is an essential part of building strong muscles, so adding it in ways that are easier to chew, such as hamburger patties, meatloaf, meatballs, or ground meat, is an exercise certainly worth the time. Canned meats are good as well, such as potted chicken, salmon, tuna, and spam. You can put chunks of soft meats into casseroles, add strips of chicken into cooked veggies, casseroles, soup, sauces, or roll them up into a tortilla shell. Baked potatoes can be loaded with ground meat, or you can boil some in a broth or soak it in gravy to keep it moist. You can also puree the meat, and then add it to other foods in your meal, or try baby foods that are pre-made to be easy to chew.  


Supplemental proteins, while they cannot truly replace meat proteins, are a good way to add extra to the food or beverages you currently eat and drink. Products like protein powder, or foods enhanced with protein like protein bars and protein waters are a good example of one of these products. Don't forgot though, these shouldn't be your first go to when it comes to adding protein to your diet. Also, talk to your doctor about adding a well-balanced multivitamin to your morning routine, or adding things like B-12 shots and antioxidants, as protein is not the only nutrient your body needs to function properly on a daily basis. 






This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your physician about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Nu Image Medical may not offer the medications or services mentioned in this article.