It takes more than aerobic fitness to be healthy and active in your 50s and beyond. You also need to be strong. UR Medicine physical therapist Elizabeth Wetmore offers advice to combat sarcopenia, a loss of muscle mass that happens to all of us as we age.
Decreased strength from sarcopenia can make it hard for older adults to perform everyday tasks, increases the risk of falls and fractures, and slows metabolism, which can lead to weight gain. The effects of sarcopenia can be significant: By the age of 50, an adult who doesn’t exercise regularly loses 10 percent of his or her muscle mass. After 50, the rate of loss accelerates significantly: strength will decline by 15 percent per decade in a person’s 60s and 70s, and by 30 percent per decade thereafter.
Fortunately, you can make big gains in strength through resistance training and other exercises, even if muscle loss has already occurred.
Exercise to build muscle can slow the effects of sarcopenia and offers many other benefits, impacting your:
- Bone health: Worldwide, 1 in 3 women over age 50 will experience osteoporotic fractures, along with 1 in 5 men aged over 50. Weight-bearing exercise that improves your strength can also stimulate bone to remodel itself, increasing your bone density. Even people with severe osteoporosis can improve their bone health through exercise, or at least slow the rate of bone loss.
- Metabolism: Muscle tissue burns more calories than fat, so by building muscle mass you are improving your metabolism and reducing your risk of weight gain as you age.
- Temperature and glucose regulation: Muscle helps regulate the body’s temperature and keeps your glucose level more stable, so you’ll feel more comfortable and avoid swings in energy caused by plummeting glucose levels.
- Mood: Exercise stimulates production of feel-good brain chemicals, endorphins.
Want to get stronger? Here are some tips for getting started:
- Talk with your doctor*. Ask for advice on how to exercise safely, especially if you have been inactive. You may want to ask for a referral to a physical therapist, who can create an exercise program that won’t aggravate existing conditions such as back, hip, or knee problems.
- Start slowly. Walking is usually safe for most people, and since it’s weight-bearing exercise, it helps build muscle and promote bone health. If you lift weights, start with lighter loads. You’ll gain the benefits without risking muscle strain and injury.
- Take a dip. Many older adults like water exercise; the buoyancy of the water puts less pressure on painful joints, but water also provides good resistance so you’ll build strength. If you’re a swimmer, take some laps in a club pool or try an organized water-based exercise class.
- Stretch for strength. Elastic bands are also a good option; they provide resistance and can be used to strengthen arms and legs, even if you need to exercise in a seated position.
- Set goals to keep motivated. If you want to stay active and independent—and get down on the floor to play with your grandchildren—you need to do the work to stay strong. It’s an investment of time and effort, but you’ll see big returns in your health and quality of life.
*Need help finding a doctor? Click here or call (585) 784-8891.
Elizabeth Wetmore is coordinator of the Spine Rehabilitation Program at UR Medicine’s Sports and Spine Rehabilitation. She is a physical therapist who helps patients rehabilitate after back and neck injuries; she is also a certified strength and conditioning specialist and a certified exercise physiologist.