Sarcopenia: How to Prevent and Treat Age-Related Muscle Loss With Nutrition and Sports

Have you ever heard of sarcopenia?

The Harvard Medical School and other health experts define sarcopenia as the phenomenon of age-related muscle mass and strength loss:

  • Sarcopenia is a natural part of aging, meaning that after the age of 30, your body starts to lose 3-5% of muscle mass per decade if you’re inactive.(1, 2)
  • In the long run, sarcopenia has a negative impact on quality of life, performance, morbidity, the success of medical transplants, and even mortality.(3, 4)
  • Malnutrition is a major risk factor for the development of sarcopenia.(5)
  • But here are the good news: With the proper nutrition and physical activity, you can make an important contribution to preventing the development of sarcopenia.(6

In this article, we’ll explain the causes and symptoms of sarcopenia, how you can prevent and treat it, and which fitness activities are best if you want to (re-)build muscle and strength.

Table of contents:

Sarcopenia

Disclaimer:

The information provided in this blog post is for guidance purposes only and does not substitute for professional medical advice. You should always consult a medical professional or healthcare provider if you’re seeking medical advice.

Sarcopenia: symptoms to watch for

People who suffer from sarcopenia experience a loss of muscle mass. This loss of strength also results in increased weakness and less mobility. This, in return, can increase the risk of injury, such as fractures from falls (e.g., broken hips, collarbones, legs, arms, wrists).

Please note:

If you experience one or more of these symptoms or just have the feeling that you might suffer from sarcopenia, please talk to your doctor.

What might cause sarcopenia?

You are not moving enough or are immobile

If you don’t use or challenge your muscles regularly, they will become lazy, leading to faster muscle mass and strength loss and increased weakness.(7)

For instance, if you need bed rest after being ill or an injury, you may experience rapid muscle loss. Also, 3-4 weeks of little to no walking and physical activity can already lead to a loss of muscle mass. It’s a vicious cycle: The more your strength decreases, the more fatigued you will become, making it more challenging to return to your regular fitness routine. 

What happens when you stop exercising?

The so-called detraining effect can result in the partial or complete reversal of all benefits you received from your regular workouts. adidas Runtastic expert Hana Medvesek explains what happens when you stop exercising.

2. Your hormones are changing

Men, in particular, experience a decrease in testosterone as they age.(8) But women also experience a change in hormones. Hormone changes are often accompanied by muscle loss. According to experts, the loss in muscle mass may be associated with increased body fat which comes with weakness and, therefore, sarcopenia.

3. Your appetite is changing due to age

As we age, our appetites change. We often begin to eat less. This results in loss of body fat and muscle mass as the body may not be getting proper nutrition. Therefore, make sure to eat enough throughout the day to maintain muscles.

Interesting fact:

The associated weight loss appears to be more detrimental to muscle mass in older people than in younger people.

You are not sure how many calories you need daily? Use the total daily energy expenditure calculator:

4. You are not eating a healthy and balanced diet

Malnutrition is a major risk factor for the development of sarcopenia. So if you want to prevent the development of sarcopenia, it’s important to maintain healthy, balanced nutrition.(9, 10

Protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin d, and creatine play a huge role when it comes to age-related muscle loss:

Protein:

To stimulate muscle growth, it’s essential to focus on physical activity and maintain the proper protein intake.

Studies show that if you want to prevent sarcopenia, your protein intake should be 1-1.2g/kg (body weight)/day, or 25-30 g of high-quality protein per meal.(11)

Some of the best natural protein sources are:

  • Meat
  • Fish and seafood
  • Eggs
  • Milk and milk products
  • Tofu and soy products
  • Legumes
  • Quinoa
  • Nuts

Do you want to learn more about protein?

Check our blog post that focuses on protein shakes, powder, natural and vegan protein sources, and more!

Omega-3 fatty acids:

Omega-3 fatty acids can stimulate muscle protein synthesis in older adults and, with that, may be helpful for the prevention and treatment of sarcopenia.(12

Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Cold-water fish
  • Shellfish
  • Algae

To increase muscle strength when doing resistance training, you can take fish-oil supplements. Studies have shown that the oil enhances the effects of strength training in elderly women.(13)

Balanced diet

Vitamin D:

A good supply of vitamin D may prevent sarcopenia or its progression. Studies show that vitamin D has a benefit on muscle strength and physical performance and can prevent falls and fractures.(14, 15) Unfortunately, it’s not clear yet how much vitamin D someone should take to prevent progressive and generalized skeletal muscle disorder.

Good to know:

Before you buy vitamin D supplements, you should go to the doctor to get your vitamin D level checked. Your doctor can then tell you if you need to take supplements and the correct dosage.

Creatine:

The amino acid creatine occurs primarily in muscle cells and is produced in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas. Although your body can produce creatine itself, you can support muscle growth by taking creatine supplements or eating creatine-rich foods such as red meat, chicken, and pork. Studies have shown that creatine supplementation during resistance training in older adults can enhance muscle mass gain, strength, and functional performance.(16)

5. You have health issues

Research shows that it is more common to get sarcopenia when suffering from health problems such as chronic heart failure(17), or chronic liver disease(18). People suffering from cancer or going through cancer treatments are also more likely to get sarcopenia(19).

What fuels muscle gain and how can you fight sarcopenia?

Is it too late to rebuild and retain muscle mass after the age of 30? Definitely not!

Experts are confident that combining a healthy diet with exercise can reduce or reverse the effects of sarcopenia.(20)

Best sports and exercises to build muscle mass

Progressive resistance training, aerobic and cardio activities, balance and flexibility workouts: If you combine these types of exercises regularly, they can help reduce falls and co-morbidity.

1. Progressive resistance training (PRT)

Progressive resistance training (which includes training with exercise machines, free weights, or resistance bands) is a great tool to build muscle, prevent its loss, and increase strength.(21, 22)

If you want to start training with exercise bands, here are some blog posts that you might find helpful:

Do you have dumbbells or kettlebells at home? Try this resistance training with weights at home:

 

What should you consider when you start working out regularly? 

  • Check-in with a fitness instructor to see which exercises are best for you and your condition. Ask for their guidance to make sure you’re performing the exercises correctly.
  • The exercises or activities should challenge but not overwhelm you.
  • As your fitness improves, try challenging yourself with more reps, sets, or increased weight. Be sure to keep improving. 
  • Give your body time to get used to the new training routine. 

Balance exercises 

To activate and strengthen your core, stabilize your muscles, and decrease the risk of injury, balance and stability exercises are key.
 

Older woman working out

3. Aerobic activities (walking and swimming)

If you think you now have to head to the gym and lift weights every day to prevent, treat, or reverse sarcopenia, we have good news for you: walking and swimming are also great activities to build and retain muscle!

Get the best tips on walking:

Get the best tips on swimming:

Cardio training

Cycling, running, hiking, and more: all these exercises can increase muscle mass, too.

Physical activity supports your health

Doing sports regularly improves overall health and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, several cancers, depression, and falls.(23)

Learn more about the exercises and how to start:

Are you too old to start running?

Now you know how to prevent sarcopenia through diet and exercise.

Torso close up of a runner

Besides training with weights and resistance bands, walking, biking, cycling, and hiking, running is a great fitness activity to get your body moving and increase body strength.

But maybe you ask yourself if you can be too old to start running?

The good news is: seniors also can start running! Many things are possible if you really want them.

Age is mainly a matter of mind and well-being. Some 30-year-olds feel like they are already too old for everything, whereas some 70-year-olds are beaming with energy as if they were 40 years younger. 

Whether you are 30 or 70, what really matters is taking the first step towards a healthy and active lifestyle!

Healthier through more exercise:

One of the few long-term studies on the topic of exercise and aging was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The study showed that people who didn’t start exercising regularly until an advanced age still benefited enormously from it. 3,454 test subjects with an average age of 63.7 (± 8.9) years were studied over a period of eight years. Those people who exercised regularly during the eight years were generally in a much better state of health than inactive test participants.

Basically, there is no reason that older runners can’t exercise just like their younger counterparts, provided that they keep a few basic principles in mind:

5 tips for running as you age

1. Give yourself plenty of rest

As you age, your metabolism slows down and your body takes longer to renew and regenerate cells. Therefore, it’s very important to give your body sufficient recovery time after every training session. When you start exercising again after a long gap, you need to increase the volume and intensity of your training slowly to give your body time to adapt to the new demands.

Important note:

Before you start training, check in with a physician. They can help make sure you’re in the clear to do sports again.

2. Improve your stamina

Regular endurance training not only increases your level of fitness and overall well-being, but it also prevents cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

A great way to start running again is to alternate between walking and running. You should generally avoid exercising to the point of exhaustion, but you can still work in some high-intensity sessions into your training. As we age, our heart rate zones change. It’s probably a good idea to check in with a physician or fitness trainer to help determine your zones as you begin training again.  

Running at an older age

3. Maintain your strength and flexibility

Muscle mass and flexibility decrease with age. But as said, weight and resistance training can help you build muscle and get stronger even at an advanced age. This is why you should incorporate strength and stability exercises into your training on a regular basis. Complex exercises with your body weight are perfect for this because they require a high degree of coordination and stabilization. You should also work some running ABC drills into your training. These exercises will help lower your risk of injury and improve your running technique and agility.

4. Strengthen your bones

Pushing and pulling are the two best ways to fight bone and mineral loss. Running regularly and static strength exercises are great for increasing bone mineral density (BMD). This improves the overall stability of your bones and prevents bone mass loss and osteoporosis.

5. Watch your diet

Food is fuel for your body. Make sure you eat a balanced and healthy diet. Find our tips on nutrition on how to preserve and gain muscle when aging above!

Takeaways

Because there is no medication to help treat sarcopenia, it’s important to change behavior to retain muscle mass:

  1. Focus on physical activity such as progressive resistance training with weights, exercise machines, or weights to build and improve strength. 
  2. Focus on a healthy diet that also includes the right protein intake based on your weight and amount of exercise.

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Tina Sturm-Ornezeder Tina loves the written word, avocados & yoga and is very curious. She likes to discover new trends and report on them. View all posts by Tina Sturm-Ornezeder »