Sarcopenia, also known as muscle loss, is a common condition that affects 10% of adults who are over 50 years old. While it can decrease life expectancy and quality of life, there are actions you can take to prevent and even reverse the condition. In fact, a healthy diet and regular exercise can reverse sarcopenia, increasing lifespan and quality of life. Let’s look into what causes sarcopenia and discover ways you can fight it.

What Is Sarcopenia?

Sarcopenia literally means “lack of flesh.”  It’s a condition of age-associated muscle degeneration that becomes more common in people over the age of 50. After middle age, adults lose 3% of their muscle strength every year, on average.  This limits their ability to perform many routine activities. Unfortunately, sarcopenia also shortens life expectancy in those it affects, compared to individuals with normal muscle strength. Sarcopenia is caused by an imbalance between signals for muscle cell growth and signals for teardown.  Cell growth processes are called “anabolism,” and cell teardown processes are called “catabolism”. However, during aging, the body becomes resistant to the normal growth signals, tipping the balance toward catabolism and muscle loss.

Four Factors That Accelerate Muscle Loss

Although aging is the most common cause of sarcopenia, other factors can also trigger an imbalance between muscle anabolism and catabolism.

1. Immobility, Including a Sedentary Lifestyle

Disuse of muscle is one of the strongest triggers of sarcopenia, leading to faster muscle loss and increasing weakness. Bed rest or immobilization after an injury or illness leads to rapid loss of muscle. Although less dramatic, two to three weeks of decreased walking and other regular activity is also enough to decrease muscle mass and strength. Periods of decreased activity can become a vicious cycle.  Muscle strength decreases, resulting in greater fatigue and making it more difficult to return to normal activity.

2. Unbalanced Diet

A diet providing insufficient calories and protein results in weight loss and diminished muscle mass. Unfortunately, low-calorie and low-protein diets become more common with aging, due to changes in sense of taste, problems with the teeth, gums and swallowing, or increased difficulty shopping and cooking. To help prevent sarcopenia, scientists recommend consuming 25–30 grams of protein at each meal.

3. Inflammation

After injury or illness, inflammation sends signals to the body to tear down and then rebuild the damaged groups of cells. Chronic or long-term diseases can also result in inflammation that disrupts the normal balance of teardown and healing, resulting in muscle loss. A study of 11,249 older adults found that blood levels of C-reactive protein, an indicator of inflammation, strongly predicted sarcopenia.

4. Severe Stress

Sarcopenia is also more common in a number of other health conditions that increase stress on the body. For example, people with chronic liver disease, and up to 20% of people with chronic heart failure, experience sarcopenia. In chronic kidney disease, stress on the body and decreased activity lead to muscle loss. Cancer and cancer treatments also place great stress on the body, resulting in sarcopenia.

How to Tell If You Have Sarcopenia

The signs of sarcopenia are the result of diminished muscle strength. Early signs of sarcopenia include feeling physically weaker over time, and having more difficulty than usual lifting familiar objects. A hand-grip-strength test has been used to help diagnose sarcopenia in studies, and may be used in some clinics. Decreased strength might show itself in other ways too, including walking more slowly, becoming exhausted more easily and having less interest in being active. Losing Weight without trying can also be a sign of sarcopenia.

Exercise Can Reverse Sarcopenia

The strongest way to fight sarcopenia is to keep your muscles active. Combinations of aerobic exercise, resistance training and balance training can prevent and even reverse muscle loss.  At least four exercise sessions weekly may be required to achieve these benefits. All types of exercise are beneficial, but some more than others.

1. Resistance Training

Resistance training includes weightlifting, pulling against resistance bands or moving part of the body against gravity. When you perform resistance exercise, the tension on your muscle fibers results in growth signals that lead to increased strength.  Resistance exercise also increases the actions of growth-promoting hormones. These signals combine to cause muscle cells to grow and repair themselves, both by making new proteins and by turning on special muscle stem cells called “satellite cells,” which reinforce existing muscle.

Thanks to this process, resistance exercise is the most direct way to increase muscle mass and prevent its loss.

Lower body leg work emphasis – leg presses, leg extensions, leg curls, and calf-raises are extremely effective in getting positive results.

2. Fitness Training

Sustained exercise that raises your heart rate, including aerobic exercise and endurance training, can also control sarcopenia. Most studies of aerobic exercise for the treatment or prevention of sarcopenia have also included resistance and flexibility training as part of a combination exercise program.

These combinations have been consistently shown to prevent and reverse sarcopenia.

3. Walking

Walking can also prevent and even reverse sarcopenia, and it’s an activity most people can do for free, and studies have found that adults over age 60 that are faster walkers were less likely to have sarcopenia.

Four Nutrients That Fight Sarcopenia

Getting higher doses of some key nutrients can promote muscle growth or enhance the benefits of exercise.

1. Protein

Getting protein in your diet directly signals your muscle tissue to build and strengthen. As people age, their muscles become more resistant to this signal, so they need to consume more protein to increase muscle growth. The amino acid leucine is particularly important for regulating muscle growth. Rich sources of leucine include whey protein, meat, fish and eggs, as well as soy protein isolate.

2. Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency is related to sarcopenia, although the reasons why are not entirely understood. Taking vitamin D supplements can increase muscle strength and reduce the risk of falling.

3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

No matter how old you are, consuming omega-3 fatty acids via seafood or supplements will increase your muscle growth. Part of this benefit may be due to the anti-inflammatory benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.

4. Creatine

Creatine is a small protein normally made in the liver.  Although your body makes enough to prevent you from becoming deficient, creatine in the diet or as a supplement may benefit your muscle growth. Creatine is probably not beneficial for sarcopenia if used alone, without exercise.

The Bottom Line

Sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass and strength, becomes more common with age and can decrease lifespan and quality of life. Eating enough calories and high-quality protein can slow down the rate of muscle loss.  Omega-3 and creatine supplements may also help fight sarcopenia.

Nevertheless, EXERCISING is the most effective way to prevent and reverse sarcopenia.

Resistance exercises appear to be particularly effective, including using resistance bands, lifting weights or doing calisthenics like squats, push-ups and sit-ups. However, even simple exercises like walking can slow your rate of muscle loss. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to get and stay active.