By the time you reach your 30s, there are certain health milestones we often gab about: Conversations like “you should be keeping closer tabs on your cholesterol and blood pressure,” or talking regularly to your primary care doctor about your sleep habits and alcohol consumption.
And then there are the ones we don’t. For instance, you may already be in the early stages of a condition that, over time, weakens your muscles and impacts your overall well-being. It’s called sarcopenia, and by definition, it’s the gradual loss of muscle mass, strength, and function happens along with the natural aging process. But it can also become more progressive—and when that happens, obesity or other conditions are often a factor. Before you sign on for a year-long membership at your local CrossFit gym, there’s good research to suggest that adding a few healthy habits to your routine may be enough to keep you strong for years to come and lessen your risk for the harmful effects of sarcopenia.
Sarcopenia (a combination of the Greek words sarx, meaning flesh, and penia, meaning loss) is typically a progressive condition. And when left unchecked, it can lead to weakness, mobility issues, and an increased risk of falls and fractures. It’s considered normal to gradually lose some muscle mass and strength as you age. In fact, according to research, after age 30, you’re likely to lose as much as 3% to 8% of muscle per decade. The rate of involuntary muscle loss becomes more concerning and takes on the characteristics of sarcopenia typically starting in your 60s. That’s when the decline can pick up momentum and significantly impact your quality of life—and may even shorten your life expectancy. One recent review found that up to half of adults over 80 may be sarcopenic.
Several factors contribute to the development of a more serious form of sarcopenia—what care providers call secondary sarcopenia—from a sedentary lifestyle and poor nutrition to obesity and age-related changes in hormones, metabolism, and muscle cells.
The relationship between sarcopenia and weight is a complicated one. While sarcopenia involves the loss of muscle mass, obesity, too, can contribute to muscle loss and weakness over time. And obesity is associated with chronic inflammation and insulin resistance, which are also linked to sarcopenia.
What’s more, the loss of muscle mass and strength that occurs with sarcopenia can make it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight. Muscle tissue is metabolically active, meaning that it burns more calories at rest than fat tissue. As you lose muscle mass, your metabolism slows down, making it easier to gain weight.
A high body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher combined with low muscle mass and function is known as sarcopenic obesity. This condition is estimated to affect up to 20 percent of the older population and poses a heightened risk of disability and poor health outcomes than each condition alone.
There’s also a concern that unintentional weight loss, which is especially prevalent among older adults living with chronic conditions, can exacerbate sarcopenia, resulting in frailty and the complications associated with frailty, such as a higher risk of falls.
Muscle is critical to motion, and one way to keep your motion is to continue to build strength and muscle throughout your life. So it probably comes as no surprise that exercise is highly recommended for slowing the progression of sarcopenia. Strength training exercises—lifting weights and using resistance bands—are particularly effective for building and maintaining muscle mass and strength. There’s research suggesting that adding aerobic exercise might also be useful in counteracting the effects of sarcopenia.
Here are some other effective strategies to start doing—or ramp up—right now:
Eat a balanced, protein-rich diet. Proper nutrition combined with strength training is essential for building and maintaining muscle mass and strength. A diet high in fiber, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates that also includes 25 to 30 grams of high-quality protein per meal—for example chicken breast, a bowl of lentils, a carton or two of plain Greek yogurt— can provide the nutrients you need to support muscle growth and repair. An review published in 2020 in The Journal of Gerontology found that of nearly 3,000 middle-aged adults, those who consumed the highest intake of protein (92 grams per day) had a 30 percent lower risk of muscle and strength loss versus those with the lowest intake.
Get your Zzzs. Adequate sleep is essential for muscle recovery and repair and, therefore, may reduce the negative effects of sarcopenia. Aim for at least seven hours of quality sleep per night for seemingly endless benefits on your health and well-being.
Manage your stress levels. Chronic stress can contribute to chronic low-grade inflammation and other factors that can accelerate the progression of sarcopenia. To alleviate stress, try relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, or yoga; pick up a soothing hobby like gardening or painting; or socialize with friends and family that lift your mood and keep you smiling.
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