Use It or Lose It

It happens to all of us…

We wake up every morning with a different ache… We groan from the difficulty of just sitting down on the couch. And at some point, we even realize we’re not as tall as we once were. Eventually, we slow down and reach out for a hand to hold or a railing to help stabilize us.

Maybe you’ve even noticed some of these changes showing up in your own life…

Losing muscle mass as we age is a “normal” process. The medical term for this is sarcopenia, and it has a huge impact on a person’s ability to move with balance. It comes from the Greek sarx (flesh) and penia (loss).

Turns out, people who are physically inactive start to lose muscle mass in their 30s and 40s… as much as 3% to 5% every 10 years. Any muscle mass that’s lost decreases our strength and mobility. This loss of muscles accelerates as we reach our 60s and 70s.

Some early signs of sarcopenia include feeling physically weaker, having more trouble lifting everyday objects, becoming physically exhausted more easily, and losing weight without trying. Sarcopenia decreases your ability to stay balanced and increases your risk of incidents that could kill you, like falling.

Sarcopenia can develop as the result of a number of potential factors:

1. Sitting on your butt: Periods of decreased activity can lead to rapid muscle loss.

One study pointed out that as little as two to three weeks of reduced daily steps is enough to cause negative changes in a person’s physique, muscle strength, muscle quality, anabolic resistance (which leads to a decrease in skeletal muscle mass), and blood sugar levels.

The less mobile you are, the more tired you become when you are mobile… which makes it harder to maintain healthy amounts of daily movement.

2. Inflammation: Long periods of inflammation – due to chronic disease or illness (like rheumatoid arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or inflammatory bowel disease) – will impact the integrity of your muscle tissue and decrease your muscle mass. Turns out, the inflammatory cells, called cytokines, that are produced during age-related chronic inflammation – like interleukin-6, a specific type of cytokine – actually reduce muscle mass in high concentrations, thereby triggering sarcopenia to occur.

3. Severe Stress: Sarcopenia is often correlated with other conditions that put large amounts of stress on the body, like chronic liver disease, chronic heart failure, chronic kidney disease, cancer, and cancer treatment. For example, cancer patients who’ve gone through chemotherapy experience decreases in strength that get worse the longer their course of treatment.

Currently, researchers are exploring how possible it is to reverse the loss of muscle fibers, stem cells (the “raw material” cells from which all other specialized cells are created), and satellite cells (that provide nutritional and protective support for our neurons).

However, there are a number of things you can do to prevent or alleviate the symptoms of aging…

1. Take Up Tai Chi: Turns out, if you’re someone who has sarcopenia, or has balance issues as the result of some other cause, you should start doing the ancient Chinese form of “meditation in motion” called Tai Chi… Research has shown that your strength, flexibility, and balance improve when you do Tai Chi.

One of the best things about practicing Tai Chi is that it can be easily adapted to a seated position. Gradually, as a person builds muscle strength and endurance, they can move from a sitting to a standing position if they want, which means people in wheelchairs can also use Tai Chi.

You can read our full issue on the benefits of Tai Chi and how to get started right here.

2. Strength Training: When you do strength training (also known as resistance training) exercises – like squats, situps, and pushups – your body creates proteins that repair damaged muscles… This action is called muscle protein synthesis (“MPS”). When your muscle protein synthesis outpaces your muscle protein breakdown (“MPB”, which also occurs during exercise), new muscle tissue grows, and your muscles get bigger and stronger. This happens in people of all ages.

In order to experience more MPS than MPB, your body needs to have amino acids. Eating protein after strength training (and a short period of rest) will provide the amino acids necessary to increase your MPS.

A 2013 study of nursing home residents – aged 77 to 97 – with impaired mobility found that after just eight weeks of strength training, the participants experienced improved mobility and greater muscle strength.

Do what I do and pick one or two strength exercises to do. I use heavy hand weights to do dumbbell rows two or three times a week, and if I’m watching an occasional sporting event, I will do curls with dumbbells and a few pushups during the commercials.

3. Eat Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Getting plenty of omega-3s from eating fresh seafood will increase your MPS and reduce inflammation in the body. A small 2010 study found that after eight weeks of omega-3 supplementation, the older adult participants experienced faster MPS and greater increases in muscle than their counterparts who did not receive omega-3 fatty acids.

While omega-3 consumption, combined with exercise and eating protein, provides an incredible strategy to fight sarcopenia – by improving muscle mass, strength, and performance – more research is currently needed to determine the optimal dosage of omega-3.

So in the meantime, do what I do… I prefer to eat fish that are lower in mercury… like salmon, light tuna, herring, mackerel, and anchovies.

Sarcopenia is a real problem we’ll all face as we age. It can steal away our independence or cause fatal accidents like falls. If you don’t use your muscles and treat them well, you will certainly lose them.

What We’re Reading

Here’s to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
June 1, 2021