By the time you reach your mid-30s, your muscles are already starting their slow, long downhill path. For a variety of complex biological reasons, your muscle condition has already peaked by the time most people would still consider themselves young adults. So if you are in your 50s or 60s you’ve already been experiencing decades of gradually worsening functional capability. This can be seen in several different markers of condition including measurement of V02 max, muscle fiber size, and response to resistance training. The good news is that we can do a great deal to counteract the effects of time and to keep ourselves in top form.
Naturally, muscle will gradually become more and more functionally limited. This reduction in muscle condition, called sarcopenia, also increases the risk for associated problems such as adult-onset diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, and hypertension, as well as cardiovascular disease. In fact, “metabolic syndrome” or the predisposition to some of these conditions is inversely related to the fitness and quantity of your muscle. So keeping yourself in top form will not only make you look good, but it is good for you too.
While we obviously cannot stop the aging of muscle and development of sarcopenia, there are steps we can take early on to keep our muscle quality up. We all know that this means maintaining regular aerobic activity, some degree of resistance training, to help ensure good muscle mass, and a good diet. What people are less aware of is actually how effective these techniques are at maintaining your muscle. One place to see this most obviously is by assessing the impact of exercise in very old individuals. For example, in one study, an older woman showed a remarkable average improvement in muscle strength of 28-115% in all muscle groups. Another study showed similar gains in muscle strength and impressive changes in muscle fiber size, with increases of 20-30%, despite the participants having a mean age of 68 years. While these kinds of improvements may seem irrelevant to a young person involved in a serious exercise regimen, they underscore that our bodies remain remarkably responsive to exercise throughout our lifetimes.
What actually happens when you exercise and why these changes are relatively age-independent is hardwired into our biology and includes the induction of a variety of synthetic pathways when muscle is exposed to resistance training and increased activity. These simply don’t turn off when we age, but remain ready to respond to at any time. There are even drugs being tested to help counteract sarcopenia. It will likely be a long time, if ever, that such drugs are routinely prescribed to older individuals, so for now, it remains up to us to keep ourselves healthy and strong from 22 to 102.