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How to Slow the Loss of Muscle That Comes with Aging

As you age, expect your muscles to become smaller and weaker. Because of this, you lose strength and mobility. You walk slower, tire earlier, lose coordination and are at increased risk for falling, breaking bones, and injuring yourself. Lack of exercise is the main reason for the progressive weakness of aging (Exerc Sport Sci Rev, July, 2013;41(3):169-173). The most effective way to maintain muscle strength as you age is to exercise against resistance.

Causes of Progressive Weakness With Aging

Progressive strength loss with aging is caused by decreasing ability to make muscle from the protein that you eat (FASEB J, 2005;19:422-4), and to enlarge muscles from the exercise that you do (Skelet Muscle, 2011;1:11).

Taking extra protein does not help older non-athletes grow larger muscles. A group of healthy 70-year old men and women started on a 24-week program of lifting weights three times a week. Half were give protein supplements and half were given placebos. The extra protein had no beneficial effect on muscle size, strength, or anything else (Med Sci Sports & Ex, March, 2013;45(3):542-552).

However, in just 12 weeks, lifting weights caused both groups to grow larger and stronger muscles and markedly improved many factors that are linked to preventing diabetes and other chronic diseases. They had lower blood levels of triglycerides, sugar, insulin, and cholesterol, and lower blood pressure.

These were 70-year old non athletes. There is data to show that younger athletes who take intense workouts can grow larger muscles if they take protein and sugar immediately after they finish hard exercise. The sugar calls out insulin which increases the uptake into muscles of amino acids from dietary protein (Am J Clin Nutr, 2011;93:322-31).

What Does this Mean for You?

If you are older than 60, you will not prevent progressive loss of muscle, bone and strength by eating extra protein or taking protein supplements. It is possible that you are not meeting your requirements for protein, but that is incredibly unlikely in most North Americans who eat too much and therefore get far more protein than they need. You CAN help to prevent this loss of strength by lifting weights. You will also lower high blood sugar, insulin, triglycerides and blood pressure, all of which will reduce your chances for diabetes and heart attacks.

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Antioxidant Pills May Reduce Benefits of Exercise

Exercise helps to prevent heart attacks, diabetes, cancers, and death by lowering high blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and increasing VO2max (your maximal ability to take in and use oxygen). A startling new study shows that people who take antioxidant supplements such as resveratrol do not gain these benefits from exercise (The Journal of Physiology, July 22, 2013).

Resveratrol, a substance found in red wine, is sold as a dietary supplement. Animal studies have shown that large doses of resveratrol help to prevent some of the effects of aging, but these results have not been shown in humans.

The Study

Twenty-seven 65-year-old healthy, non-exercising men performed high-intensity exercise for eight weeks. Half of the men received 250 mg of resveratrol daily, and half received a placebo. This dose of resveratrol was much higher than you could possibly get from drinking wine or eating foods such as grapes. The men who took the placebo, but not those who took resveratrol, had significant improvement in their blood pressures, cholesterols, triglycerides, and VO2max.

How Exercise Prevents Disease and Prolongs Life

The leading theory is that exercise prolongs life and prevents heart attacks and cancers by causing the body to dispose of free radicals with increased production of antioxidants. Exercise speeds up the reactions that turn food into energy, so exercise actually makes your body produce even more oxidants called free radicals. Your body responds to this increased production of free radicals during exercise by producing tremendous amounts of antioxidants that sop up the free radicals and render them harmless. Taking antioxidant supplements prevents your body from making its own antioxidants that protect you. Antioxidants made by your body are far more effective in preventing cell damage than those taken in pills.

Exercise Increases Mitochondria

All cells in your body (except mature red blood cells) have mitochondria, very small energy-producing chambers that number anywhere from a few to thousands in each cell. As you age, mitochondria in muscles decrease in number and size. This interferes with your body's ability to turn food efficiently into energy, so you produce more oxidants called free radicals. Anything that increases the number and size of mitochondria helps to protect you from free radicals and produce even more antioxidants. Exercising helps to increase the ">number, size and function of mitochondria.

My Recommendations

Try to exercise every day and eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Markedly reduce your intake of red meat, sugared drinks, sugar added foods and fried foods. Get your blood levels of hydroxy vitamin D above 75 nmol/L. We do not have any good data showing benefit from taking antioxidant supplements, and they may work against you.

This week's medical history:
Rose Knox: Profit from Brittle Nails

For a complete list of my medical history biographies go to Histories and Mysteries

Recipe of the Week:

Green Bean-Potato Curry

You'll find lots of recipes and helpful tips in The Good Food Book - it's FREE

August 4th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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