Muscle Mass and Strength Decline in Older Women—But You Can Slow Down the Process

With tips for getting regular physical activity, engaging in strength-training, and getting proper nutrition, Tufts exercise scientist Roger Fielding explains how to stay stronger longer

If, as you get along in years, you’re finding it increasingly harder to unscrew the lids of jars or to pick up your children or grandchildren, there’s a reason for that: sarcopenia. Sarcopenia, or age-related loss of muscle mass and strength, can lead to serious consequences, explains Roger Fielding, team lead for the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology, and Sarcopenia Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, and professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

“After the age of 35, both men and women start to lose muscle mass at a rate of about half a percent per year and muscle strength at a rate of about one percent per year,” Fielding says. “For women, sarcopenia is particularly significant because the peak muscle mass and muscle strength they achieve in their mid-thirties tends to be lower than it is for men. So, when they start to decline, they generally reach a critical level earlier in their lives.”

Reaching that critical level means experiencing a diminishment of basic physical functioning, such as a slower walking speed or difficulty rising from a chair, and an increased risk of becoming disabled during the aging process. Interestingly, those facts hold even for athletes or people who tend to be more active. They, too, experience sarcopenia, Fielding says, albeit at a slower rate.

But there are steps women (and men!) can take to keep their muscles strong even as they hasten toward the golden years. Fielding offers the following tips:

Older woman jogging

Start exercising now

 “Any physical activity is better than no physical activity,” Fielding says. He emphasizes that there is never a bad time to begin becoming more physically active. If you’re an older woman and you’re not getting much physical activity, start out with a gentle program of movement: walking, yoga, jogging. Perhaps even consider signing up for a few sessions with a personal trainer who can demonstrate how to perform exercises correctly and personalize a workout regimen for you.

Older woman doing squat

Build in resistance and strength training

 According to Fielding, research has shown that muscle-strengthening exercises are crucial for tackling sarcopenia. In fact, established physical activity guidelines suggest that older adults should add two sessions of strength-training exercises to their workout routines weekly. “That can involve using simple weights at home or machines in the gym,” Fielding explains. “Anything that works some of the large muscle groups of the upper and lower extremities—chest muscles, arm muscles, thigh and leg muscles, hip extensors—will be beneficial.” Consider doing squats, chair rises, planks, and similar exercises.

older woman doing yoga

Aim to meet the minimum recommended amount of exercise—but start slowly

Experts recommend that all people, not just older adults, engage in 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week: that means walking, jogging, swimming, doing yoga, and the like. However, Fielding cautions that it’s easy for beginners to overdo it—and overdoing it can result in injury or strain, the very thing you want your physical activity to help prevent. So, it’s crucial to begin with light exercise and easy moves and then slowly build up to more demanding workouts.

older woman doing stretch

Find a balance—literally

 Older people—and, because of changes wrought by menopause, older women in particular—often are vulnerable to falls. To help prevent falls and resulting injuries, older women should consider adding balance-training exercises to their regular physical activity routines, Fielding says. Yoga and Pilates rely heavily on balance, and thus are effective practices for balance-training. Also, as Fielding explains, many strength-training exercises involve balance work: two birds with one stone. You also can use a stability ball or Bosu ball—a half-dome set atop a flat base—to work a plethora of balance-related muscles all at once.

lists of protein food

Optimize your nutrition for muscle health

 In addition to proper exercise, women, particularly postmenopausal women, must be careful to take in adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D, Fielding says. Many women can get enough of these nutrients from diet alone, but taking supplements is an option and should be discussed with a personal physician. Dairy products are great for older women, Fielding notes, along with vegetables that contain calcium, such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, collard greens, kale, and other leafy greens. Older women also need to consume an adequate amount of dietary protein; the recommended daily allowance for dietary protein is 0.9 grams per kilogram of body weight—on average, around 60 grams of protein per day. Lean meats, fish, and dairy products are all good sources of high-quality protein.

older woman walking a dog

Make it fun

 “Most of us know that exercise is good,” says Fielding. “The problem often is getting people to adhere to a regular program of physical activity. And once you stop exercising, any of the benefits you achieved are lost. So, find a way to make exercise a regular part of your life and daily routine.” It’s easier if you enjoy doing it, Fielding acknowledges. He recommends sticking with activities you know you like: if you know you’re a walker at heart, then, by all means, walk. If you know you prefer free weights to gym machines, invest in a good set. Also, find a place where you feel comfortable working out. “Going to the gym can be intimidating—but a local YMCA will likely have programming for a range of age groups,” says Fielding. Finally, find a friend you can exercise with; that might be the best way to stay accountable and stick to a program that will keep you going well into your sixties and beyond.

Illustrations by Shutterstock

 

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