Never Stop Training – Here’s Another Reason!

Introduction

Between the ages of 40 and 50 years we can lose up to 8% of our muscle mass. Once we hit 75 years of age, this loss of speed- and power-generating muscle accelerates to a loss of greater than 15% per decade. This loss can result in a significant decline in both sport performance and day-to-day functioning. However, most of the research into age-related functional decline has been undertaken in a sedentary older population. While exercise is known to alter the age-related decline in lean muscle mass and subsequent loss of functional performance, here is some research suggesting that staying involved with masters sport may limit or prevent the loss of muscle mass that happens in active older people.

 Where is the evidence?

A study recently published in the Physician and Sportsmedicine looked at whether the regular exercise undertaken by a group of masters athletes (runners, track and field athletes, cyclists and swimmers) was responsible for preventing the age-related loss of muscle. Forty (20 males and 20 females) healthy and uninjured ‘recreational’ masters athletes aged 40 – 81 years who trained 4 – 5 times weekly underwent tests of body composition (% body fat), muscle strength, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the quadriceps (thigh) muscle. The MRI allowed researchers to compare lean muscle mass, adipose tissue and intramuscular fat levels across ten year age groups 40-49, 50-59, 60-69, and > 70 years. The results showed that, in contrast to previous results from sedentary populations, masters athletes who train regularly preserved their lean muscle mass across the four age groups, and had no age-related increase in intramuscular fat stores. Unlike sedentary populations there was no significant loss of muscle strength until the 6th decade and this was then preserved into the 7th decade. However, there was an age-related increase in %body fat with age in both genders. Pleasingly, there was no age-related decrease in quadriceps strength per unit of quadriceps muscle area.

 What do we do now?

This study is not alone in its findings and adds more weight to the argument for lifelong exercise. Preservation of muscle mass and lack of intramuscular fatty infiltration is likely to not only preserve functional capacity but also reduce chronic disease and disability into older age. The health care and social costs of loss of lean muscle mass, weakness, and senior disability are staggering. In 2000, U.S reports suggest more than $18.5 billion in health care costs were directly attributable to sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass). This accounts for approximately 1.5% of all health care expenditure and equates to between $800 to $900 per sarcopenic person. With an aging population, these costs will only increase. Harnessing the benefits of weight training intervention and/or regular aerobic exercise to maintain and build muscle mass and strength, thus preventing loss of independent function and disability, is not only logical but is becoming a social imperative. A reduction of 10% in the prevalence of sarcopenia would result in savings of $1.1 billion per year in health care costs. The message is clear. Not only should we Just Do It! We should Keep Doing It! Exercise that is!

For more on the importance of exercise (in particular weight training) for maintaining health and performance in masters athletes, see Chapter 7 (Strength and power training for the masters athlete) of Peter Reaburn’s book The Masters Athlete.

Source: Wroblewski, A et al; (2011). Chronic exercise preserves lean muscle mass in masters athletes. Physician and Sportsmedicine. 39(3): 172-178.

Thanks to Rob Stanton MHMSc for contributing the above article. Rob is an Exercise Physiologist and Level 2 Strength and Conditioning Coach. He is a co-founder and Director of Vector Health. Rob has over 15 years experience in the assessment and prescription of exercise for athletes, rehabilitation and in the management of chronic disease. He is a former coach of Australian Powerlifting teams, Queensland Academy of Sport regional Strength and Conditioning supervisor and has worked with athletes from grass roots to Olympic level. He’s also a great guy! Rob can be contacted by email at rob@vectorhealth.com.au if you are looking for help with training programs, particularly weight training programs.