As we age, our muscle mass decreases at surprising rates. According to Dr. David Heber, director of UCLA's Center for Human Nutrition, an average male who weights 180 pounds might after age 60 lose as much as 10 pounds of muscle mass over a decade.
But can we turn that around?
Heber says absolutely.
In fact, new research published in the journal Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise finds older adults who begin lifting weights after 50 may win the battle against age-related muscle loss.
"You have to do what we call resistance exercise," Heber says. This can take a lot of different forms. "It could be lifting weights, it could be stretchy bands, but the key is you have to stretch a muscle."
When you stretch a muscle to the point of straining it, as is the goal during weight lifting, you set in motion the body's natural muscle-building response. The muscle has to adapt to the damage and build itself up to be prepared for the next weightlifting assault. In this way, muscles build fiber and actually increase in size.
Take the success story of 73-year-old Sandy Palais of Tempe, Ariz., who does resistance training six days a week for about an hour each day. Palais started lifting weights about 10 years ago, shortly after she was diagnosed with osteoporosis. Weight training builds both muscle and bone mass.
Palais started going to the gym three days a week. It didn't cost much, and student trainers were there to help. Within a year, she was able to compete in the local senior Olympics.
"My top score was 380 pounds: I squatted 135; I benched 80; and I deadlifted 165," she says, laughing.
Now Palais has a drawer full of silver and gold medals.
Exercise physiologist and researcher Mark Peterson first met Palais when he was a student trainer at Arizona State University. Now, Peterson works at the University of Michigan where he authored the new research published in Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise that looked at whether older people can reverse the process of muscle loss.
"The time in which we say that older adults can't do more exercise is long gone," he says.
In Peterson's analysis of 39 studies, he found that among more than 1,300 adults over the age of 50, muscle mass could be increased by an average of nearly 2.5 pounds in just five months.
Not only did that reverse any age-related muscle loss, it actually built lots of new muscle. Related research found the greater the intensity of weight-lifting programs, the more dramatic the outcomes. Adults who lifted the most weight boosted their upper and lower body strength by nearly a third.
Applying The Research
Muscle strength and balance help prevent falls, one of the most common reasons seniors end up in the hospital. For sedentary adults who resolve to take up weight lifting, Peterson suggests starting slowly. You could actually begin by simply getting in and out of a chair. He says the ability to stand up out of a chair is much compromised after the age of 65 if people don't take part in resistance training. So, using one's own body mass as a dead weight is a "reasonable way to start."
Repeat that at least 10 times. Then, add repetitions and weights like small barbells as you become comfortable with the exercise. Increases of 5 pounds per weight are reasonable after mastering the lift, says Peterson.
And, after exercising, don't forget to eat, adds Heber. If you don't, muscles could actually get beaten down and not have the building blocks to get bigger and stronger. Protein is essential, Heber says, adding that your best bets are chicken, fish, soy, beans and nuts like pistachios, walnuts and almonds.
Palais says she thinks the extra effort she exerts is worth it.
"I feel strong," she says. "I can lift the bags of groceries without too much sweat."
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:
On President's Day, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
In Your Health on this Monday, keeping your body and your mind strong as you age. Increasingly, health experts say weightlifting is the best prescription to battle one of the biggest disabilities of age - shrinking muscles. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.
PATTI NEIGHMOND: Muscle loss really picks up after the age of 60. People can lose about two pounds of muscle every five years, which begs the question: Can we turn that around.
Dr. DAVID HEBER (Director, Center for Human Nutrition, UCLA): Absolutely. You absolutely can build muscle as you age.
NEIGHMOND: Dr. David Heber directs UCLA's Center for Human Nutrition.
Dr. HEBER: You have to do what we call resistance exercise. And this can take a lot of different forms. It could be lifting weights. It could be stretchy bands. But the key is you have to stretch a muscle.
NEIGHMOND: This is not yoga. It's not flexibility. It's about lifting weights, stretching a muscle to the point of straining it and then adding more weight. That's how you set in motion the body's natural muscle building response.
Dr. HEBER: The muscle now has to adapt, because your body feels, hey, you just did this weightlifting today, this must be your new job now to lift this weight. So your body is now going to adapt those particular muscle fibers that you stretched to be able to take in more weight the next day.
Ms. SANDY PALAIS: Would you hook up the straight bar for me? Thanks.
NEIGHMOND: Sandy Palais is 73 years old. She works out five days a week, two hours each day. Today she's lifting weights at the gym at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Ms. PALAIS: I use the leg extension. I use the leg curls. I'll do back extensions, triceps extensions.
NEIGHMOND: Palais starting lifting weights about 10 years ago, shortly after she was diagnosed with osteoporosis. She was losing bone mass. What she didn't realize - she was losing muscle mass as well. And weight training builds both. So Palais went to the gym three days a week. It didn't cost much and student trainers were there to help. Within a year she was able to compete in the local Senior Olympics.
Ms. PALAIS: My top score was 380 pounds. I squatted 135. I benched 80. And I deadlifted 165.
NEIGHMOND: Palais has a drawer full of silver and gold medals.
Dr. MARK PETERSON (Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Michigan): Sandy is like a hero to me. I think she is an outstanding role model.
NEIGHMOND: Mark Peterson first met Sandy Palais when he was a student. Now Peterson's a researcher at the University of Michigan and he's just completed a study looking at this very question: Can older people reverse the process of muscle loss?
Dr. PETERSON: What we found was, boy, people beyond the age of 50 make dramatic increases, much more dramatic increases than I think was historically thought.
NEIGHMOND: After five months of lifting weights two to three times a week, both men and women increased their muscle mass on average by nearly two and a half pounds. Not only did that reverse age-related muscle loss, it actually built lots of new muscle.
Dr. PETERSON: If you were to ask me how much strength is enough, I would say I can't answer that question. I think more strength is always better within reason.
NEIGHMOND: Muscle strength and balance prevent falls, which is one of the most common reasons seniors end up in hospitals. But if you're like most people over 50, you don't get much exercise, so Peterson says start slowly with weightlifting. For example, just get in and out of a chair.
Dr. PETERSON: The ability to stand up out of a chair is actually - is very comprised beyond the age of 65. So actually using one's body mass as a load itself would be a very reasonable way to start.
NEIGHMOND: So stand up and sit down. Do it at least 10 times. Don't push up with your hands. And when that's easy add a little weight, like small barbells. When you get to the point where you're really weight-training, Dr. Heber says don't forget to eat a little something after each workout.
Dr. HEBER: If you don't do that, your muscles are going to be broken down, because during your exercise you've developed what we call an oxygen debt, where you have to pay back your body for the energy you've burned. And in the absence of having protein and some carbohydrate your body is going to take the muscle and break it down to do that.
NEIGHMOND: Sandy Palais thinks it's all really worth it.
Ms. PALAIS: I feel strong. I can lift the bags of groceries and things like that without too much sweat.
NEIGHMOND: Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.