What is sarcopenia?

Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle and strength as you age. This process is the beginning of frail. One of the 5 indicators of frailty is a loss of strength. This loss of strength begins at different times for different people but often it starts to happen around the age of 30 if you are not exercising or doing any strength training. Once in your 40s, it is normal to lose about 1-2% of muscle mass and strength each year.

With this level of muscle mass loss if left unchecked 1 in 3 people will be at weakness levels that would indicate frailty by the age of 60. Frailty is defined as having 3 of the 5 indicators.

The 5 indicators of frailty are;

  1. Weakness,
  2. Fatigue,
  3. Slow gait speed
  4. Unintentional weight loss, and
  5. Low levels of physical activity

Having only one or two of these means you are technical “pre-frail”. But, chances are if you have allowed this loss of muscle and strength to lead to frail levels then you probably have 1 or 2 more indicators of frailty. Nobody wants to be seen as old and frail. Let alone be frail at the age of 60. If you have no indicators of frailty you are by medical definition “robust”. To me, this means you’ve aged well and aged successfully.

If gone unchecked then sarcopenia may mean you will have lost about 50% of your muscle mass by the age of 70. This muscle mass will be replaced by fibrous tissues instead.

Why am I telling you about sarcopenia?

Well, this loss of strength affects you on a daily basis. Things like getting out of a chair, going upstairs, or carrying shopping can become impossible tasks if you lose basic strength levels.

If severe enough it can be even more detrimental to our health by causing falls, fractures, and loss of independence.

When you are in your 20s, 30s, or 40s it may seem mad that I’m talking about these issues that are “old people’s problems” but tackling sarcopenia is a bit like a pension. If you leave saving for your pension until it’s too late then you won’t have the money to do what you want to do when you retire. Well, in much the same vein, if you don’t tackle sarcopenia now you’ll be too weak to enjoy your retirement.

Is sarcopenia reversible? Is sarcopenia preventable?

Yes and yes! Sarcopenia is reversible, and, sarcopenia is preventable. Thankfully sarcopenia is not inevitable. Yes if you do nothing you will lose muscle mass and strength. But, if you keep exercising, keep exercising, and strength train 2-3 times a week you can prevent and reverse the effects of sarcopenia. 10 weeks of strength training has been shown to increase muscle size by 4-5% and muscles strength by more than 100% and that’s in people over the age of 70. It’s never too late to start!

In fact, during the first 10-12 weeks of doing strength training in the gym, the main thing that changes is not your muscle/body composition but in fact, it is your strength levels. That goes for people of all ages.

Having more muscle will make you strong but there is also a neural effect to your strength. The nervous system can be trained in the gym much as the joints and muscles can. And, these neural adaptations are the main thing that brings about an increase in strength during the first 10-12 weeks of training.

This is also why very often you go to the gym for 2 or 3 months before anyone starts to notice. You may feel stringer initially but your friends or family won’t see the physical difference right away.

I don’t have time to spend hours in the gym…

The good news, it doesn’t take hour after hour of training to get benefits from strength training for sarcopenia. 30-40 minute sessions 2-3 times a week can make a world of difference to your health. Not only will strength training 2-3 times a week help with sarcopenia and muscle loss it will also help to improve your energy levels preventing fatigue. Low energy levels are another indicator of frailty that is preventable.

You don’t stop because you are old. You get old when you stop!

Strength training and exercise, in general, will help prevent 4 of the 5 indicators of frailty. While I’ve already spoken about how strength training reduces the impact of sarcopenia and improves your energy levels what it will also help is keeping your gait speed high. A slow gait speed is the third preventable indicator of frailty. Finally what you will need to do is supplement your strength training is more physically active if you aren’t already. Physical activity doesn’t mean going for hour-long runs, cycling up the Wicklow mountains, or doing 100 lengths in the swimming pool. Physical activity can be walking to the shops, taking the stairs, or getting off the bus a bit earlier. If you strength train 2-3 times weekly and stay active it will stave off frailty and all the issues that come with it.

“If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.”

Frailty

The only indicator of frailty that isn’t directly related to strength training and physical activity is unintentional weight loss. Now, bad luck may play its part here and you can develop an illness that may mean you lose weight unintentionally because you are medically unwell. Nobody is to blame for this when it happens. Thankfully though many chronic illnesses can be prevented with physical activity, strength training, and proper nutrition. The more you keep fit as you age the less likely you are to develop diabetes, heart issues, have a stroke, get COPD, and so on.

If you want to speak to any of our expert staff about the right exercise to age healthily then you can contact us by phone, via email, or on any of our social channels. You also have the option to book a face-to-face consultation in our Lucan Clinics. If coming into the clinic isn’t possible for you we also offer video consultations via WhatsApp.

You can also read more on the benefits of Strength Training here

Tommy Brennan

Tommy Brennan

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