YOU AND YOUR MUSCLES:  Use it or Lose it !

Dagmar MacDonald               RHN, CPT

 Disuse Entrophy

Do muscles age? What if we are active now, will that be enough to sustain us in years to come? Will we have the strength and stamina to enjoy our retirement years? We have often heard from fitness professionals that muscles don’t know age, but that really is not quite true. Muscles most certainly do experience age-related changes, both in strength and size, but they age over a continuum and the rate at which they change is affected by many variables. Sadly, even the most robust and athletic individual will, at some point, be affected by metabolic changes that increase protein breakdown and reduced muscle synthesis, as well as declining hormone levels, increased inflammatory compounds and cell-damaging free radicals that will promote muscle wasting and affect the growth of muscle fibers.  In addition, variables such as rapid weight loss, illness, prolonged bed rest as well as age-related lifestyle changes will also contribute to the acceleration of muscle loss. This is not what retirement should look like!

Let me tell you more. Sarcopenia or Disuse Entrophy can sneak up on you as early as age 20, and by the time you are 50 you will have lost 1-2% muscle per year!  Did you know that for every pound of muscle you lose, you burn 50 calories less per day? And then, between the ages of 50 and 70, you can lose up to 30% more of your muscle mass, resulting in arms and legs becoming weaker and looking thinner and flabbier.  It becomes harder to lift packages or move your furniture. The loss of muscle in your legs increases the risk of falls.  As a result, you begin to slide right into that preconceived notion of aging: becoming less active, eating less healthfully, developing chronic diseases and illness, and become frail, more dependent.


What this means is that if you don’t USE it, you WILL lose it!  Rest is not what you want, especially for those that are aging (let’s say 50+ here, but this applies to those that are younger as well). You need exercise, the right kind, and lots of it! A human body not used will waste away into a frail, weak shell.  Bones not challenged will become soft and brittle. You begin to lose aerobic capacity just days after you stop exercising, and after 2 weeks, your cardiac output, blood volume and maximal oxygen consumption drops 15%. No wonder you are gasping and breathless just climbing one flight of stairs!


But, there is good news in all of this! It is NEVER too late to start.


Fortunately, muscle is adaptable and will respond very quickly to resistance training.  This means lifting weights and keeping your mentality and intensity in the “go heavy, or go home” field.  There is no easy way around this!  You do need to start and the sooner the better.  The harder you lift, the stronger you will become and the longer it will take for your muscles to atrophy – this means that you can be fit, strong and able well into your 90s and beyond.  If you are looking for the fountain of youth, then this IS as close as you will get.


Here are a few simple tips to get you started:

  • Eat Right – You can’t build muscle unless you eat right. Plain and simple.  If you cut corners your body will show it with low energy, poor recovery, insomnia and perhaps a little bit extra around the middle. Fuel your tank for success, everytime.
  • Work Hard – According to the most recent research, the older you get the harder you need to work at maintaining muscle strength and size, both in frequency and intensity. Go to the gym with the goal to sweat and hurt a little. Because muscle loss occurs gradually, the stronger you are the longer it will take to hit ground zero.  The same can be said for bones.
  • Begin Now – We can’t turn back time, but a recent study found that athletes that worked out four to five times per week were able to “freeze” levels of muscle mass as they aged – thereby avoiding the brunt of sarcopenia.