What Causes the Decline in Muscle Strength with Aging?

Exploring the Science behind it

We become more interested in how our bodies work as we get older. Our concern is growing on how to decelerate the aging process. In May alone, over 100 million was invested by the largest investors in the US in biotech startups.

I became absorbed in the subject as soon as they diagnosed me with sarcoidosis. I was wondering how to keep from losing my muscles. The process in which we gradually lose muscle strength, called sarcopenia, has a very important impact on the health and quality of life of any human being.

With those diagnosed with sarcoidosis, this decline is going by leaps and bounds.

But here, I will focus more broadly on exploring the factors behind the loss of muscle strength with age so that we can better understand it. Additionally, I will provide hints as to what we can do to slightly stop this deterioration, since we cannot improve it because it is a natural life cycle.

As we age, there are changes that help our muscle strength decline. One of the major causes is the loss of muscle mass.

Around the age of 30, we begin to lose muscle mass and the rate of loss depends not only on age but also on gender, according to this article in the Journal of Applied Physiology. This deficit is directly responsible for decreasing our muscle strength.

Changes also occur in the characteristics of muscle fiber

The fibers in our muscles change as we age. As Zachary Walston comments in this article on how the muscle changes with aerobic training:

“Measures of capillary density, particularly capillaries per unit of fiber perimeter (CFPE), were significantly higher in the legs that received prior aerobic training. The legs that underwent aerobic training also experienced larger increases in type I and type II fiber cross-sectional area, as well as satellite cell and myonuclear content.”

Our muscles comprise two main types of fibers: fast-twitch (type 1) and slow-twitch (type 2) fibers.

Fast-twitch fibers are responsible for generating force and power, while slow-twitch fibers are involved in endurance activities. With age, there is a preferential loss of fast-twitch fibers, leading to a decrease in overall muscle power and strength.

Hormonal changes

It’s obvious that changes don’t just happen on a physical level, but also on a hormonal level. We all know that our hormones change constantly and especially with age.

Testosterone is one of the most important hormones involved in muscle growth and one that we lose with age. We need it for both men and women, so weight lifting is one basis of good training for long-term aging. Zachary explains it in this other article:

“Although, as you age, the weight-bearing activity becomes more important as bone mineral density requires it.”

And also, to the drop in testosterone levels, we have to add the drop in insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) levels. IGF-1 is essential for children’s growth and has an anabolic effect in adults. This means its role is significant in the deterioration of our muscular system.

We have less physical activity

As we get older, we have less physical activity. Apart from the fact that a large part of the population in developed countries already has a sedentary lifestyle. We know it’s not good, but even so, it’s hard for us to start training. This sedentary behavior takes away muscle strength and leads to atrophy.

Doing exercise frequently, especially resistance training, can be useful to keep us going in the right direction and fight against this loss. We need to engage in activities that stimulate muscle growth to curb age-related muscle decline.

How we eat

Food is a fundamental part of our life. Without a healthy diet that provides us with the vital nutrients, our body suffers the consequences. And in this case, to avoid muscle strength loss, we all know the importance of good quality proteins to repair muscles and provide muscle mass.

Apart from protein, we need vitamins and minerals that help us stay well hydrated, which keeps muscle fibers in good health. You know magnesium, potassium, and sodium are our crucial friends for proper hydration.

As you can see, everything adds up to achieve muscular health and maintain it for a longer time throughout your life.

What we can do to stop muscle strength loss

We are interested in focusing on these fundamental points to stop the loss of muscle strength:

1. Regular Resistance Training

As I mentioned before, weightlifting or using resistance bands can help combat muscle strength loss. And it is that this type of exercise stimulates muscle growth and also improves the composition of our muscle fibers.

How many repetitions or how much time do you need to spend training? Again, I’m sure Zachary’s explanation is the best way to answer that question:

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to optimizing training. We can provide universal recommendations for baseline fitness, but even that likely needs some adjustment considering training history, age, and current health status.”

2. Increase overall physical activity

I like the way Lukas Schwekendiek enlist it in his article:

Do More Cardio — Get some fresh air and go jogging or go for a swim every now and again. Break a sweat every day if you can to get your body in high gear and fit.”

We all know that leading an active life can help prevent loss of muscle strength. The activities that can help us improve our resistance are walking, jogging, dancing, or hiking. My best option is swimming and treadmill walking at least for 20 minutes a day.

As the Mayo Clinic recommends, we have to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. Also, include muscle-strengthening exercises two or more days a week.

3. Maintain a Balanced Diet

A fundamental role in muscle maintenance is diet. We have to eat high-quality protein from sources like lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, and dairy products. Also, try to find a balance by adding a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats to provide essential nutrients that support muscle health.

4. Hormone replacement therapy

I’m still learning about that option and I’m still not so convinced because of the side effects of hormonal therapies. Of course, if I hadn’t any other option, I would try it for sure. And especially considering that many studies (like this one) show that in the case of women, muscle strength has a significant decline just after menopause, much greater than in men.

5. Engage in Functional Training

My curiosity about functional training for individuals who age was piqued while I was searching for proof of how someone in a wheelchair can improve their physical health. I came across the Eldergym Fitness YouTube channel where the videos feature aging people of all kinds. I convinced myself that anyone could start doing functional training at any age and in any physical state.

The only requirement is that you truly want to feel better, no matter what. Determination, some call it. And persistence, I would add.

Always consult with a healthcare professional or a certified fitness trainer before starting any unfamiliar exercise or dietary regimen, especially if you have underlying health conditions. They can provide personalized advice and tailor a plan that suits your individual needs and goals.

Final Thoughts

Composing this article made me think back on my wellness. I’m a young person, so I’m fortunate to have a good state of health. Even so, knowing that I am already losing muscle mass makes me rethink my day to day.

That’s why this article has been published after such a long time: I devoted my mornings to training before I began writing for Medium. The main idea in my mind is:

If you are in poor health, you will stop writing. Nobody can help you more than yourself. So let’s sweat!

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