Although your muscle mass gradually declines as you age, a study has shown that having strong muscles prolongs your life. The challenge is: how do you prevent these age-related changes from taking place so you can enjoy a long, healthy, and happy life?
In this post I will explain why it’s so important to protect your muscles as you age, the problems you may experience if you don’t, and introduce the concept of the health-wealth profile; which can enable you to live longer and enjoy better health in old age.
Keeping our muscles strong is one of the keys to vibrant health and longer lifespans. Why? Our muscles continue to grow and develop until we reach our mid-20s. The pattern changes by the time we hit our mid-30s, as muscle mass declines gradually with age – at 5% per decade. Failing to take measures to strengthen our muscles means they degenerate (this is called sarcopenia), and this can result in frailty by the time we reach 75.
We are not designed to pursue today’s sedentary lifestyle. We carry genes from our hunter-gatherer ancestors who endured a higher level of physical activity. While we may not be as active as our predecessors, muscles are still our biggest assets in terms of helping us move around, make our living, and enjoy our lives.
Key Reasons To Protect Your Muscles As You Get Older
Your muscles and bones have a beautiful synergy. Muscles pull against bones to get stronger. This stimulates the bone to build up and prevents osteoporosis.
- Muscles also support your immune system, so a decline in muscle mass puts you at higher risk of infections. No wonder pneumonia is the commonest cause of death in frail elderly people. A British Medical Journal (BMJ) article reported that muscle strength is a strong predictor of mortality.
- Muscles are not limited to skeletal muscles; your heart is also a muscle that pumps blood throughout your body. Weakness in the heart muscle can result in poor circulation and reduced delivery of oxygen and essential nutrients. Furthermore, your bowel and bladder are muscles too, and a decline in your body’s musculature can result in chronic constipation and bladder dysfunction.
Active, strong muscles also mean that we carry less body fat. Having more of the biologically active muscles and less of the biologically inactive fat accelerates your metabolism and increases your energy consumption. This protects you against obesity and prevents diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Start Saving Your Muscles For Old Age!
A sedentary lifestyle, or health issues that prevent physical activity as a person ages, can lead to age-related physical weakness. Unfortunately this often results in the nightmare scenario of reduced mobility, falls, and injuries—a common cause of hospital admissions in the elderly. With significant muscle loss, elderly people lose their independence and many have no option but to live in a nursing home for the rest of their lives.
I hope the above information has convinced you that just like saving a pension pot for retirement, it’s also really important to start saving muscles for your old age!
Using the pensions analogy, for a better outcome you need to select the right policy that pays the highest dividends: and then continue to build up your health-wealth profile on a regular basis, hoping to have enough muscle to stay strong later on in life.
How Do I Build Up My Health-Wealth Profile?
The crucial step in building your health-wealth profile is to balance your body composition: your muscle-to-fat ratio. This means having the maximum possible muscle mass and reducing your body fat content. In other words, build muscles and lose fat.
To balance your body composition, you need more of the anabolic growth hormone, which also activates repair in adults, and less of the catabolic stress cortisol. In practical terms, you need to train your muscle and keep stress at bay.
High levels of the stress hormone cortisol create a peculiar body habitat manifested clinically in Cushing syndrome. This adrenal over-activity state results in the accumulation of fat in your mid-section, leaving your limbs thin, with marked muscle wasting.
The Benefits Of Strength Training
First, you have to understand that exercise alone is not an efficient way to lose weight. The real benefit of exercise is to help your body detoxify, and to normalise blood pressure, blood fat, and sugar. As your body improves, you feel relaxed, happier, and more confident, and this helps to reduce stress. However, you do need to exercise to keep your muscles strong.
Secondly, you need to know that not all exercises are equal. Strength training is the only exercise model proven to give longevity and prolonged vitality. It can add 7 to 10 years to your life. As your body gets stronger with regular workouts, your body function improves. It also slows down your memory loss and prevents dementia.
However, you need to push your muscles to their limit during strength training to get a meaningful result. Small muscles tears while exercising trigger a full-blown repair process. The result is bigger and more efficient muscles that burn energy and utilise oxygen efficiently.
When training with weights, it’s important to gradually increase the weight load. Challenging your body to handle greater weight loads can reap optimal benefits. Your body will gradually become stronger and more resilient to the training stress—and you’ll recover more quickly after each workout.
There is wealth of evidence to support the important fact that unlike man-made machines, the human body gets better and stronger with more exercise. The message here is simple: “use it or lose it”.
We can’t discuss muscles without referring to the closely related hormone testosterone. They enjoy a mutual relationship. Testosterone declines gradually with age in both men and women, resulting in lower muscle mass. However, building up your muscle mass through strength training can increase your testosterone levels, even later in life.
You can also increase your testosterone level if you exclude sugar and highly processed carbohydrates from your diet. Shifting to low glycaemic food will not only strengthen your muscles, but it will also enhance your sex life!
Another factor to consider is friendly gut bacteria, which can also have a great impact on your muscles. Taking care of your microbiome can bring about health and vitality in your life. The best options are natural probiotics found in bone broth and fermented food. Our microbiome will also flourish with a high fibre diet.
All of the scientific research covered here suggests that we tend to lose muscle mass as we age, resulting in sarcopenia and frailty when we grow older. Strength training has been proven as the best option to increase your muscle mass to reduce the likelihood of this happening.
- Your muscles, health and longevity can also benefit by eating less sugar and fewer refined carbohydrates, and by ensuring that your gut contains plenty of healthy microbiome.
Strong muscles will add years to your life—and life to your years—and your life span will match your health span. The important thing to remember is that no matter how old you are, it’s never too late start.
Do You Have A Plan To Enjoy A Long & Happy Life Right Up To The End?
It is hard to believe that life expectancy in Great Britain was 50 at the beginning of the twentieth century. By the end of the century, this had risen to over 80!
The good news is that we are lucky to have 30 years added to our lives. However, the bad news is that we might not be well enough to enjoy them. Sadly ‘accelerated ageing’ and chronic diseases rob people of their vitality and leave them vulnerable to dependency and poor quality of life. This creates a substantial gap between life and health span.
Life Span Vs. Health Span
People over the age of 50 take different paths as they grow older: they can stay vibrantly healthy, or deteriorate slowly with age and diseases. The path depends almost entirely on the body’s ability to cleanse and repair itself.
It’s important to note that only 20 per cent of ageing is attributable to your genes; the rest is completely under your control. So, your environment controls a staggering 80 per cent of the ageing process, and this includes your thoughts, attitudes, stress, diet, physical activity, sleep, and relationships.
Grouped together, these can have an epigenetic (above genes) effect that is powerful enough to influence your genes to promote either health or disease. In simple terms, this means that by adopting a healthy lifestyle, your genes will be prompted to express health and you will age gracefully and win the game of life!
- Accelerated ageing, on the other hand, takes place when more body cells are dying than are being replaced by the body’s repair system. You start losing organ reserve, which naturally affects their function and your health. This happens in relation to chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, which can result in brain failure (dementia); kidney failure; and heart failure.
As we all know, a physical or mental impairment (especially when combined) increases the risk of people losing their ability to live independently, and significantly lowers their quality of life.
Finally, some people belong to another group of over-50s whose vitality is diminished, although they do not have sufficient symptoms to be classified as a disease. As these people age, they become slower, fatter, and clumsier and they lose their confidence. They simply lack fitness.
What Does Fitness Really Mean?
As a doctor with over 35 years of experience, I have met fit people over the age of 100 and very unfit people in their 20s. Fitness has nothing to do with age. It comes from a mental attitude that helps some people adopt an active lifestyle.
Contrary to what many people think, you do not have to work hard in the gym to get fit; fitness can be attained while pursuing your normal daily activities, such as housework, gardening, and brisk walking.
While our genes may determine 20 per cent of ageing, we all have a choice to make with the remaining 80 per cent. We can choose to stay healthy, or allow our health and vitality to deteriorate.
- By choosing health, your body functions better and you have a good chance of remaining independent and happy for the rest of your life.
- By not choosing health, you increase your risk of disease, and diseases can lead to dependency and poor quality of life.
Therefore, good health should be the priority for everyone, particularly over the age of 50. At this age, you can still easily switch from the unpredictability of exposing yourself to a higher risk of disease, to a more enjoyable health path. Along this health path, you increase your chances of ageing gracefully and enjoy life fully up to the end – I call it the vitality span curve!
Evidence To Support Making This Choice
I am sure you have met fully functional and independent people in their 80s, 90s, or even beyond the 100 mark. We often think these people are lucky to have strong genes, and I agree—good genes are crucial—but you need to supplement them with a good attitude and better lifestyle choices in order to enjoy a prolonged and productive life.
A study compared the benefits of an exercise program for a younger group of participants (in their 30s and 40s) versus an older group (in their 70s and 80s). Surprisingly, the older group achieved more improvement in their physical fitness.
Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine has indicated that people who cut down their calorie intake by 20 per cent and manage to maintain their muscle mass, live on average 20 years longer than their counterparts, and live better quality lives. And when it came down to quantity versus quality, the research shows that most people prefer to have a better quality life in their remaining years, rather than having more years to live.
Surely it’s a no brainer? I think that since we are destined to live longer nowadays, everyone deserves to stay strong with a good level of energy and vitality to enjoy life.