How to maintain muscle strength as you age

You know that having strong muscles means you can pick up increasingly heavy weights, and pedal your way up a steep incline without breaking a sweat. But do you know what it is and why it is important? “Maintaining muscle strength is achieved with a combination of resistance exercises (weights, bands, body weight, pulleys etc) and cardiovascular exercises.

Resistance training is important because every time you lift, press or pull a weight, microscopic tears are created in the muscle. The body’s response is to send signals to repair the muscle and in this way, it builds stronger muscle fibres, promotes hypertrophy (increase in size), and reduces the risk of sarcopenia (muscle atrophy),” explains biokineticist Stuart McDad of Waterfall Sports Orthopaedic Surgery.

Cardiovascular exercise does not achieve the same muscle-building response but is equally as important to keep the muscles healthy (through better blood flow) and maintain the strength in the heart, which is also a muscle. Cardiovascular exercise can occur in several different forms including walking, gardening, cycling, swimming and jogging and should be done for about 20-60 minutes a few times a week.

What is muscle strength?

“Muscle strength can be measured during a muscular contraction and refers to the amount of force a muscle can produce with a single maximal effort. Muscle strength is also related to the size of your muscle fibres and the ability of the nerves to activate those muscle fibres. As you age, resistance training is important to maintain this contractile strength in the muscles,” says Stuart.

Why is it important as you age?

With ageing, muscle does not only diminish in size and strength but also loses some aerobic capacity. This can then lead to a decline in metabolic function within the body. Muscles are responsible for keeping the metabolic system intact as well as protecting against a decrease in hormone function such as testosterone, preventing obesity, reducing the risk of diabetes and reducing the likelihood of cardiovascular diseases. “Maintaining muscle strength and cardiovascular capability also slows down the ageing process and enhances cognitive functioning. In short, it is important in preventing the overall loss of physical energy, the tendency to gain excess weight, and the vulnerability to disease and premature ageing,” explains Stuart.

How can you maintain it through nutrition?

Eat more protein, says Stuart. “Muscles are made up of protein and as you get older the body needs more proteins to build the same amount of muscle compared to when you are younger. The body becomes less efficient at processing protein, which makes it more important to incorporate protein-rich foods. At least 30 grams of protein per meal is necessary. Amino acids in protein are the building blocks of muscle – that is why diet is at the top of the list of changes to be made with ageing. Omega-3 fats are important as they boost a range of responses from heart functioning to mood changes. It is also important to monitor Vitamin D levels with ageing as this helps with muscle protein synthesis and fights inflammation. This translates into improved muscle strength.”

EMS Training as an alternative form of training for older individuals

Based on EMS research done by Wolfgang Kemmler and Simon von Stengel (2010 – 2012) It is generally known and extensively researched that the most effective way to fight the natural and age-related decline of muscle mass and function is a physically active lifestyle, and most importantly, participation in regular exercise.

However, due to physical limitations, lack of time or lack of motivation, a large number of elderly participants are either unable or unwilling to perform (intense) corresponding resistance training. Read the full research.

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