4 ways to help fight muscle loss

Losing muscle tone may not seem like a big deal — but it impacts your daily functioning and raises your risk of other health conditions. Here’s help staying strong for the long run.

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Sarcopenia: It’s not exactly the subject of riveting conversation, even with your doctor. In fact, most of us don’t even know what the word means. But as you get older, it’s important to school yourself. 

Simply put, sarcopenia is the loss of muscle that occurs as a normal part of the aging process. 

“As we age, our muscle-building hormones gradually decrease, and our ability to use proteins to build muscle decreases,” explains Kristen Carter, M.S., an exercise physiologist and nutrition coach and author. “Sarcopenia is a natural process that involves a loss of connections between the brain and muscles, as well as a loss of muscle mass.”

All of this begins in your 30s. From then on, most adults — especially those who don’t exercise regularly — can lose 3% to 5% of total muscle mass every decade, according to a Harvard Medical School report. 

“That can lead to a loss of more than 30 pounds of muscle over your lifetime,” says Irene McCormick, M.S., a certified strength and conditioning specialist. In some cases, the loss can be even more severe.

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Aging is the primary driver, but how much muscle you lose depends on several things. Lack of exercise and poor eating habits can certainly speed it up. Diseases you’re managing (like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis) and medications can factor in. 

“Where you live may even play a role,” Carter says, noting that some neighborhoods provide easier access than others to healthy foods and safe places to be active. Any of these situations may explain why you’re losing muscle faster — or slower — than other people, she says. 

Why Muscle Loss Matters

In a nutshell: “It’s not just muscle mass that you’re losing, but also muscle strength,” says McCormick. That dip in your strength can lead to frailty, an increased risk of falls and fractures and a loss of independence, according to the National Institutes of Aging.

“Muscle mass is an important part of your success in being able to function independently,” McCormick says. “Older adults who lose muscle also risk other potentially fatal disease conditions.” 

With stronger muscles, you can keep active, which can help you fend off diseases like heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, high blood pressure and osteoporosis, Carter says. You might also have an easier time maintaining a healthy weight.

Plus, less mass makes it harder for your muscles to work together as well as they used to. “This can lead to injury, loss of coordination and spending more energy to get things done. This can become a vicious circle,” says Carter. 
 
It’s not all bad news, though. Both Carter and McCormick say there are a few things older adults can do to minimize the impact of sarcopenia.

Muscle Mass Move #1: Strength Train

It’s the number one way to help maintain or build muscle. “When you strength train you’re giving your muscles a challenge, which will make them stronger,” says Carter. “Muscle responds to the challenge by creating more muscle tissue.”
 
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends strength training two to three times a week, completing eight to 10 repetitions of one exercise for each major area of the body — legs, hips, chest, back, abdomen, shoulder and arms. 

Some studies show benefits of 12 to 15 reps with lighter weights, Carter says, so pick a weight that feels comfortable. 

If you’re new to strength training, though, start with exercises that use your own body weight to provide resistance. A good starting point: 4 Strength Moves Older Adults Should Do

When you’re comfortable with those exercises, try using a light resistance band or light weights. The band or dumbbell you choose “should feel challenging but not impossible,” Carter says. No weights? As a stand-in, you can use household items like soup cans, water bottles or even a small bag loaded with a few books.

Strength train one to two times a week on non-consecutive days. As you get stronger, you can increase the frequency to two to three times a week, and increase the weight that you’re using. 

Muscle Mass Move #2: Pile on the Protein 

We’ve known for a long time that eating enough protein helps build and maintain muscle. Now, there’s new evidence that bumping up your protein intake may help stop your muscle mass from declining as you age. 

A 2020 study in Nutrients found that eating 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight more than the current recommendation may significantly increase muscle mass. 

That study was done on older men. But other research shows that older women see muscle gains from eating 30% more protein than current nutrition guidelines recommend, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. For reference, the current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for adults 50 and older is 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men.

Why does this work? When older and younger people sit down to the same plate of protein, Carter explains, the older adults won’t be able to generate new proteins for their cells from food as well as the younger ones. Chalk it up to another age-related decline.

We won’t make you do a lot of math. The takeaway from these studies, says Carter, is simply to eat more protein than you think you need. Besides the obvious beef, turkey, pork and chicken, good protein sources include:

  • Fish
  • Quinoa
  • Beans 
  • Tofu
  • Lentils
  • Low-fat Greek yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Cottage cheese
  • Milk
  • Nuts

Carter notes that older adults can only process about 30 grams of protein at one meal. That’s why she recommends portioning it out throughout the day, versus consuming it all in one big meal. 

Muscle Mass Move #3: Follow a Heart-Healthy Diet

Protein is the top nutrition priority for your muscles, but everything else you put on your plate matters, too, says Carter. 

Vitamin D, for example, supports muscle health, as do the omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, nuts, olive oil and avocados. These nutrients feature prominently in the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet.

A 2015 study in Advances in Nutrition suggests that omega-3s may trigger muscle growth directly. Researchers believe the healthy fat’s anti-inflammatory properties are also at work. 

Bottom line: If a food is good for your heart, it’s good for your muscles, says Carter. Be sure to fill up with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Vitamin D can be tricky to get enough of from food, so ask your doctor or health care provider if you should get your D levels checked. If you come up short, they may recommend a vitamin D supplement.

Muscle Mass Move #4: Stay Active

McCormick’s favorite tip for holding on to your muscle mass is to stay as active as possible throughout your day. Inactivity, she says, speeds up the age-related drop in strength.

Look for opportunities to move more when you’re at home. Some ideas: Do knee or leg lifts during commercial breaks. Take the longest path possible to pick up your mail. Pace the hallway when you’re on the phone. Put the clean laundry away one item at a time. 
 
Make those muscles a priority, and you’ll be able to stay stronger and more independent into your later years.
 

Find a New Physical Activity

As you’ve learned, even a little physical activity can help you stay strong and help protect your independence. Find the information and motivation you need to keep moving with Renew’s physical activity resources. Watch fun videos, take an online learning course or make use of the helpful tools and tip sheets. To learn more, sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then look for Physical Activity in the Quick Links section. Not a member? Learn more here.