Sarcopenia is the steady, gradual loss of muscle mass that begins during the fourth decade of life. Adults can expect to lose between 3% and 5% of their muscle mass per decade, accelerating to 1% to 2% per year after age 50. Sarcopenia is both the name of the condition and its outcome.
To state the obvious, a loss of muscle mass means a loss of strength, which has significant quality of life implications as the process progresses.
The visual aspects of sarcopenia can be deceptive. Because the condition is age-related - and because people tend to become less physically active over time - there is a lifestyle-associated change in body composition. This means that even though you have begun losing muscle mass, your bathroom scale may not show a weight loss. So, even if you weigh the same, it may be due to fat replacing muscle.
Fortunately, this strength- and functionality-limiting phenomenon can be delayed, and often reversed through exercise. And even if reversing the condition is less than 100 percent, everyone - even those in the oldest age groups - can improve their strength and reap the benefits therefrom. In one study, following three months of supervised progressive resistance training, muscle protein synthesis increased by approximately 50% in 17 frail 76 to 92 year old men and women.*
Progressive overload resistance training is the only way to delay, slow down, and reverse sarcopenia.
Overload, adaptation, and progression is a continuing process. Once your muscles become accustomed to a workload they become efficient at exercising at that level and the benefits become less. At this point it will be necessary to increase to a new workload to continue the process.
Your exercise program should consist of:
- 8 to 10 exercises
- 10 to 15 repetitions of each exercise
- at least 1 set and preferably 2 to 3 sets of each exrecise
for each of the major muscle groups
- at least 2 times per week, with 48 hours between workouts
- at an intensity that is "somewhat hard"
The major muscle groups are the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals, latissimus dorsi, pectorals, and deltoids.
Because many seniors have various health issues which may have an impact on exercise, you should check with your physician before starting a progressive overload resistance exercise program.
Also, working with a personal trainer will ensure that your workloads are appropriate for your starting fitness level, and that progressions will be sufficient to elicit a productive response, but conservative enough to avoid injury.
*The Mystery of Muscle Loss, Chantal Vella, M.S. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D, citing a 1999 study by Yarasheski and others.