I’ll bet you never knew there was a name for it. The loss of muscle mass as you age— it’s called sarcopenia. From the time you come into this world until around age 30, you grow muscles. But at one point within the next decade your muscles decide to head in the other direction.
So for the purposes of this post, I’ll just talk about one muscle group — LEGS. It’s usually a Monday curse I foist upon you, but it’s among the most important workouts you'll do all week. And in the end, it's among the best gifts you can give yourself.
Physically inactive people can lose as much as 3% to 5% of their muscle mass each decade after age 30, but believe it or not, even active people lose some along the way. There is no way to diagnose sarcopenia or measure its effects, but it typically accelerates anywhere from age 65-80 and is the major reason for weakness, loss of stamina, frailty and the likelihood of falls and fractures in older adults. It all starts with your legs failing you little by little as you age. But make no mistake about it — even REDUCED activity can shrink muscle mass.
There is a pattern to how muscles lose strength, but think about how the legs, which carry us through life, are the reason we see older women lose posture, stop wearing their favorite “pretty” shoes, hang on to handrails going up and down steps, and - believe it or not - stop being able to jump. Sounds like no big deal, right? But when was the last time you saw an older woman “hop” up or down a set of steps?
The pattern of sarcopenia includes the slow reduction in nerve cells responsible for sending signals from the brain to your muscles to start moving. Lowered concentrations of growth hormones and testosterone (part of the natural aging process) rob you of the kind of strength that once enabled you to get off the floor without using all fours or pull on a pair of leggings without leaning or sitting down. Even stepping up onto a tall curb may find you asking someone to hold your hand. And don't even get me started in on how hard they tell me it gets to get up on a horse and lift yourself up to a saddle. In speaking to my older clients, I can tell you that getting these physical skills back doesn’t happen overnight — but when they do find they can do any or all of the above, it’s as if someone just waved a magic wand and sent them to the fountain of youth. To those of us in our 30s and 40s, it sound like a small thing. To them? It’s epic. And believe me, you will get to their age sooner than you can imagine. Other symptoms include not getting enough protein each day to sustain muscle mass and a decrease in the body’s ability to turn protein into energy.
Exercise and strength training are definitely the ticket to reverse all this — especially strength training. As you already know, I concentrate on increasing muscle strength in your legs by demanding more and more from you, upping resistance and endurance even as you swear at me under your breath. Strength training even helps your neuromuscular system and affects hormone levels, improving your ability to convert protein into energy in as few as two weeks’ time.
So next time you grumble as I have you carrying a weight and lunging across the floor; next time you're walking around the fitness studio feeling like an idiot with resistance bands on your lower thighs; next time I monitor your deadlifts saying “stick out your butt more!” — these are the times you can look back on by age 65 as you walk tall, climb steps easily, take hikes with 40-somethings, or strut and balance on those gorgeous pumps with a sense of confidence. Don’t thank me. Thank yourself for doing those leg workouts! And revel in the “good soreness” that usually follows…. Of course, that’s how I know it’s working!