Why It’s Critical that You Muscle Up as You Age

The “Biggest Loser” Nutritionist, Cheryl Forberg takes you through the reasons why building and maintaining muscle at any age is critical to living a long and vital life.  There’s three ways that muscles relate to aging well, and three factors that make us lose muscle as we age.

HERE’S A SHOUT-OUT to Cheryl Forberg RD, Nutritionist for NBC’s The Biggest Loser, for her article Why Strong (Muscle Mass) is Sexy, because people need to know that retaining/building muscle and strength is a vital part to aging well.

Without adequate muscle, living long and strong, as I like to say, is less probable.

Ms. Forberg posits the question: “What do muscle mass and strength have to do with how well we age?”

The answer touches on three things:

  1. Activity level,
  2. Metabolism, and
  3. Fat.

Now before I get into these three, let’s touch on why you should care about your level of muscle and strength even if you’re still young age.

Right now you may be under 30, but someday hopefully you’ll be over 30, and after you reach 30, three to eight percent of your muscle mass erodes each decade.

By the time you reach 60 years of age, the muscle loss accelerates even faster!

If you’re not doing resistance training to slow down or maintain muscle mass, you’re heading for a sessile, constrained, slow-moving, injury prone, lackluster middle age and beyond.

So, listen up… you need to muscle up!


Three Ways That Muscle and Strength Improves How We Age

1. Activity Level

Remember all the running around (literally) you did as a whippersnapper?  All the sports and activities you enjoyed?  This movement required muscle.  If you don’t maintain it as you grow older, shifting from side to side on your couch will be an Olympian effort.  And as you know, the less you do, the less muscle you need to do it; unexercised, unloved, it just fades away.

One other point for those of you concerned about bone density… the strength of your muscles is related to the strength of your bones, and most any activity is going to be done better if your bones are strong.

Ms. Forberg points out:

“Women are likely more focused on keeping their bones dense and strong than on maintaining their muscles, because the medical establishment, society and the media have put more focus on preventing osteoporosis. However, when your muscles are weak, your bones are more likely to be weak.” (Source)

2. Metabolism

Muscle burns calories.  Just sitting there, doing nada, muscle consumes more of the calories you pile into your body than would otherwise be used.  If you ate less as your muscles atrophied, perhaps it would all equal out. But you don’t, or speaking for myself, I don’t, and so muscle-building is maintained as my life-long discipline.

3. Fat

Surely, when metabolism level declines, all other things being equal – like the number of calories consumed – fat happens.  But the body is a complicated thing where nothing happens by itself or in isolation, and so it’s not just a slower metabolism that contributes to making us fatter as we get older and our ignored muscles vacate the premises.  Insulin does us in as well.

The insulin effect happens this way… Muscles consume glucose (blood sugar) big time, but glucose needs insulin in order to enter cells and be used as energy. If your muscle mass erodes but the amount of blood sugar stays the same, there’s less capacity to use it and you become insulin resistant.  This puts you at greater risk for Type 2 diabetes, which in turn raises your risk of heart disease, stroke and, perhaps, Alzheimer’s.

A pretty good incentive to muscle up, yes?


Maintaining Muscle

The good news is that declining muscle isn’t just an unpreventable fact of aging. Declining muscle is merely a result of you no longer challenging your muscles.  What you don’t use, you lose.

No excuses – even people in their 90s can show impressive strength gains with exercise.

Again, Ms. Forberg:

“As you age, a number of changes occur in your skeletal muscles, which are the ones that move your arms, your legs and the rest of your body. You lose muscle mass — you simply have less of the stuff. Your nervous system becomes less efficient at prompting your muscles to move. Fat and connective tissue start developing within your muscles, leaving less muscle tissue to contract to move your body.” (Source)

We touched on the three ways muscle and strength relate to aging.  Now, here are three factors that contribute to declining muscles as the years unfold:

1. Lack of Use

Young, old or in between, if you don’t use your muscle, you’ll lose it.  Surely you’ve noted what studies demonstrate:  even young people’s muscle mass and strength quickly deteriorate when confined to bed rest.

Building or maintaining muscle requires resistance training.  To keep your legs strong (bone and muscle), you don’t have to load a barbell with weights and squat yourself to a hernia.  Rather, walk hills, and/or just squat with your hands out in front of you or on your hips.

To keep your upper body strong (bone and muscle), you don’t have to join a gym, lie on a bench and lift a barbell off your chest.  Rather, do push-ups.  If you can’t do any or many with your legs straight behind you and balanced on your hands and feet, then balance between hands and knees.  (Just don’t let your mid section slump so that your pelvis hits the floor first, or let your head droop so low that your nose touches the floor whilst your chest is still 12 inches above it.)

{Watch my rather entertaining, if embarrassing, attempt to demonstrate how to get a full body resistance and aerobic workout at home without any equipment here at the Homestead Workout.}

2. Insufficient Protein

The current RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) for protein — the amount that people are supposed to get each day — is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight for adults. So if you weigh 200 pounds (91 kilograms), you need 73 grams of protein daily.

How to get it?  I recommend you do it the way I do… fish, some diary, eggs and protein supplementation, such as whey protein.  (See Diet 101.)

The “Biggest Loser” plan strives for getting 30 percent of your daily calories from lean protein 45 percent from complex carbs and 25 percent from good (omega-3) fats.

3. Hormonal Changes

The ladies on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may know firsthand that extra estrogen can cause a weight gain in fat, not muscle. It’s certainly in your best interest to discuss the estrogen and progesterone balance of your HRT with your doctor.  Review with him/her a good exercise routine, and if you’re an exercise neophyte, do yourself a favor and begin your exercise life under the guidance of a personal trainer. A good one is truly worth it.

Well, that’s it… the bottom line:  Muscle up, cause muscle does a body good!


P.S. Check out Here’s Why Exercise Slows the Aging Process.

P.P.S. Need some ideas for a workout program? Start with Part 1 of my six part series: The Functionally Fit Fast Workout.

Last Updated on August 1, 2018 by Joe Garma

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Joe Garma

I help people live with more vitality and strength. I'm a big believer in sustainability, and am a bit nutty about optimizing my diet, supplements, hormones and exercise. To get exclusive Updates, tips and be on your way to a stronger, more youthful body, join my weekly Newsletter. You can also find me on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

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