Fight Muscle Loss during Aging with the Right Exercise and Nutrition Plan

It's never too late to get fit and healthy

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

While special consideration must be paid to nutritional needs for children, on the other end of the spectrum are nutrition and exercise changes that occur as we age. Professor Ormsbee discusses what specifically you should be focusing on and why it matters.

Beautiful woman preparing healthy foods for the week
Longevity and quality of life as we age are directly affected by proper nutrition and exercise. Photo By Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Nutrition Needs and Aging

In general, most people do not understand that their nutrition needs change as they start aging. You might be surprised to learn that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has found an overall decline in the diet quality of Americans over age 65.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also reports alarming rates of obesity worldwide for all of us, including those over 65 years old. This correlates with the American data.

While there is no magic drink, potion, or pill for aging, we do know that proper nutrition and exercise are vital for increasing longevity and improving quality of life as we age. It is not uncommon for exercise to slow down or become nonexistent as we grow older. 

In fact, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that only about 28–34% of adults ages 65–74 are physically active. The WHO recommends at least 150 minutes of activity per week, but adds that for real benefits, it’s best to exercise roughly 300 minutes per week—that comes out to one hour per day, five days per week. 

This should be a mix of moderate and vigorous exercise. If you don’t exercise now, that shouldn’t stop you. You can add fitness, muscle, and strength at any age.

Plenty of examples exist of older individuals who are not only active but are also extreme athletes. For example, at age 84, Lew Hollander completed an Ironman distance triathlon—which is 2.2 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking, and 26.2 miles of running.

Maintaining Muscle

Additionally, ample research evidence demonstrates that muscle quality and quantity remains excellent if physical activity is consistently part of your daily routine. It’s also important to eat properly, to not only fuel for a healthy life but to also help with physical activity to reduce fatigue and to maintain or build muscle mass. 

According to Professor Ormsbee, protein intake for aging people is extremely important. Research on protein needs in older people recommends that protein intake should almost be doubled compared to the typical recommended amount of 0.8 grams (g) of protein per kilogram (kg) per day, or 0.36 g per pounds (lbs) of body weight per day. 

This consideration is due to an age change called anabolic resistance, where we grow resistant to the growth-promoting properties of protein. Anabolic resistance develops as early as age 40, give or take a few years.

It is important to also include resistance training or weight lifting in your exercise plan in order to maintain or improve muscle mass—the very things that keep you moving and healthy. Thus, aiming for about 30–40 g of protein each time you eat might be optimal to improve muscle mass and defend against any age-related decline in muscle mass. 

It should equal out over an entire day to just less than one gram of protein per lbs of body weight. Thus, if you weigh 160 lbs, you would aim for a protein intake of somewhere between 115 and 160 g—which you can get from lean meat, dairy products, protein powders, or proper combinations of plant foods. 

Fighting Sarcopenia

You should combine this nutrition strategy with resistance training. Research that looked at three months of resistance training and protein intake in over 100 people between 50 and 80 years old concluded that higher protein intake led to the best improvements in muscle mass.

To fight off sarcopenia, or the age-related decline in muscle mass that affects nearly 50% of men and 60% of women ages 60–69 years old, you should lift weights and eat enough calories and protein. Since hunger can decrease with age, it is also important to just be aware of your total calorie intake.

Monday’s article will explore two other nutrition considerations for the aging process: vitamin D and calcium. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.