By Barbara Broggelwirth MS, RDN, CDN
Sarcopenia is a condition characterized by loss of skeletal muscle mass and function. Although it is primarily a disease of the elderly, its development may be associated with conditions that are not exclusively seen in older persons such as declines in activity, chronic illness, and poor nutrition. It is one of the most important causes of functional decline and loss of independence in older adults.
Research shows that average men and women over age 30 begin losing muscle at a rate of 15 percent per year. Sedentary adults risk losing up to 30 percent of muscle by age 75. Current research also shows that the condition of obesity can lead to fat infiltration into skeletal muscle which in turn leads to muscle wasting. The consequences of sarcopenia are often severe in older adults, as strength and functional declines associated with sarcopenia can contribute to several adverse health outcomes, including loss of function, disability, and frailty which increases risk of falls and mortality. It can also decrease basal metabolic rate – the number of calories we burn at rest – and lead to unintended weight gain.
The good news is that our bodies are very adaptable. Interventions that have been shown to prevent sarcopenia are, you guessed it, increasing activity and providing adequate nutrition. Results of clinical intervention studies in even the oldest and frailest nursing home residents have demonstrated significant functional improvement through a combination of nutrition and resistance exercise when combined with adequate protein. One study looked at 100 long-term care facility residents in their 80’s and 90’s who were enrolled in a supervised weight training program. At the end of 10 weeks, some of the results were so positive that a number of residents were able to switch from using a walker to a cane.
It is never too late or too soon to begin fighting sarcopenia. In three to four months, adults can increase strength by two to three times their current strength ability with resistance training.
Strength or weight training that uses your own body weight or opposing forces (dumbbells, resistance bands) to build strength improves endurance and increases muscles. If you vary your resistance training program through the number of repetitions and sets performed, type of exercise and amount of weight, you will get stronger and maintain muscle mass.
Examples of resistance training are:
- Free weights – dumbbells or barbells
- Weight machines – devices with adjustable seats and handles attached to weights
- Medicine balls – weighted balls
- Resistance bands –portable bands that can be adapted to most workouts and provide continuous resistance throughout the movement
- Body weight –squats, push-ups, and chin-ups
- Kettle bells- cast iron weight with a single handle to help with weighted balance and stability of muscles
Components of a strength training program include:
- Set – group of repetitions performed without rest (two sets of squats by 15 reps would mean you do 15 squats then rest muscles before doing another 15)
- Repetitions – number of times you continuously repeat each exercise in a set
- Weight – different weights or resistance (varying dumbbell and weights, machines and weight, resistance band strength)
- Rest – you need to rest between sets. Rest periods vary depending on the intensity of exercise
- Variety – changing your routine, introducing new exercises, and challenging your muscles
- Walston, J. D. (2012). Sarcopenia in older adults. Current Opinion in Rheumatology, 24(6), 623–627. https://doi.org/10.1097/bor.0b013e328358d59b
- Zayback-Drepaniotis, MS, RDN, CDN, N. (2017). Resistance Training and Your Health [web log]. https://www.matherhospital.org/our-blogs/weight-loss-matters/.
Barbara Broggelwirth MS, RDN, CDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist who works with Bariatric and Medical Weight Management patients to help them achieve their health and weight loss goals.