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Sarcopenia and the Importance of Resistance Training

Sarcopenia (pronounced sarko-peen-ya) is the “age-related” loss of muscle. The word comes from the Greek, for “flesh reduction.” Just likeosteoporosis and arthritis, “sarcopenia is a serious degenerative condition that increases ones risks for falls and makes one more vulnerable to injury.”

How does this translate to the human body?

In physically inactive people there is a loss of about [-0.5%] of lean muscle mass every year between age 25 and 60, and a corresponding decline in muscle strength. From age 60 on, the rate of loss doubles, to about 1%. It doubles again at age 70; again at age 80, and then again at age 90.

We are losing muscle mass, and that muscle mass is being replaced by fat cells. Typically an individual wonders why they develop a “pouch” gut, or why theirthighs or buttocks are becoming larger. We realize we are not gaining muscle mass in these areas, but losing muscle mass and fat cells are gaining in size. Most people can envision this process occurring in their body from the age of 30 on.

Inactive people normally have the most severe atrophy (loss of muscle mass), but active people also may experience atrophy of the muscle. The greatest loss is experienced with the fast twitch (FT) versus the slow twitch (ST) muscles. The FT muscles are used for high-intensity, anaerobic movements (weight lifting) while the ST are employed for activities such as running, dancing,biking, etc.

With aging and inactivity, the most atrophy is seen in the fast twitch (FT) fibers which are recruited during high-intensity, anaerobic movements. Although sarcopenia is mostly seen in physically inactive individuals, it is also evident in individuals who remain physically active throughout their lives. Present finding suggests that physical inactivity is not the only contributing factor to sarcopenia. Current research is finding that the development of sarcopenia is a multifactor process. Many factors, including physical inactivity, motor-unit remodeling, decreased hormone levels, and decreased proteinsynthesis, may all contribute to sarcopenia.

What causes Sarcopenia?

1. The aging process–  Sarcopenia generally starts to set in around age 45, when muscle mass begins to decline at a rate of about 1 percent per year. As muscle mass begins to decline, so does muscle strength. Studies have revealed that muscle strength declines by approximately 15 percent per decade in the sixties and seventies and about 30 percent thereafter. As strength goes, so does physical functioning—the ability to do chores, take walks, climb stairs, or the accomplishment of other activities. This loss of strength can create a vicious cycle. Since it takes a great deal of physical effort and discomfort to perform daily tasks, one naturally avoids it, which creates even more weakness.

2. Physical inactivity– Sarcopenia occurs in people of all fitness levels, however physically inactive adults will see a faster and greater loss of muscle mass than physically active adults. 

3. Reduction of hormone production in the human body as we age 1. Testosterone, 2. Human growth hormone.

4. Decrease of protein synthesis ability within the human body as we age.

5. Female estrogen levels may also play a role in the development of sarcopenia during and after menopause. This topic has limited research, but it does appear that many females develop a “pouch” after menopause.

6. Nutrition can also be a factor in the development of sarcopenia if one is not consuming adequate energy intake. Many older individuals may not be consuming enough calories and/or protein, thereby depleting muscle protein to sustain energy requirement.

Treatment and Prevention

Along with proper nutrition, a powerful intervention in the prevention and treatment of sarcopenia is resistance training (weight-lifting or strength training).

Resistance training works to build muscle by forcing the body to heal the damage to muscle cells that occur with use. When the intensity is high enough, microscopic tears occur in the muscle, which then rebuild protein and make the muscle stronger.

Although it has been known for decades that resistance training increases muscle mass and strength in young adults, many thought that muscle loss in older people was inevitable. However, it is now known that past studies done on older people using weights, did not show a positive response because the studies were not using the correct exercise intensity. Instead, subjects were lifting weights that were too light.

More current studies, using higher intensity workouts have shown that

“strength could be doubled in only 12 weeks of training, and that even frail nursing-home residents in their 90’s could build muscle and strength.”

Sarcopenia can be stopped and reversed with proper weight training. Moreover the muscle mass we are creating is also known as lean body mass. For every 10 pounds of lean body mass we carry on our bodies, 500 calories per day is consumed to maintain that body mass.

Yes, you may burn more calories by running or walking, but these activities will not increase muscle mass as weight training does.

The following program will help build muscle mass.

A1) Back Squat

A2) Lying Leg Curl

B1) Bent-Over Row

B2) Close-Grip Bench Press

C1) Abdominal Crunch

C2) Standing Calf Raise


Do 2-3 sets of 10-12 repetitions with 60 seconds of rest between sets. Make sure to keep the movements slow and controlled. Perform the routine 3 times a week (every other day.)
Restoration in the form of massage, contrast (hot/cold) showers and baths, or some light cardiovascular exercise (such as walking) and stretching can be useful. 

If you consider weight training as curling 2 or 3 pound dumbbells as you watch TV, you should consult with a local weight lifting trainer, buy an on-line fitness program or join a health club. These individuals or organizations will help you reach your goals in a safe and knowledgeable manner. It is extremely important that you learn the proper techniques and lifting form (s). Proper training will insure results, safety and help prevent unnecessary injuries.

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