When it comes to muscle strength, men are born with an advantage. Both men and women lose muscle as they age, but it can become more severe in women.
Women have come to accept that there’s nothing they can do when their strength decreases as they get older.
But as an anti-aging doctor, I can tell you that you DON’T have to accept muscle loss as a part of getting older. You can stop it — and reverse it.
Muscle deficiency is a medical condition called sarcopenia. It comes on gradually starting in your 40s and 50s. If you do nothing about it your body simply “wastes away” over the years. Skeletal muscle mass can drop 35% to 40% by the time you reach 80.1 That’s about three pounds every decade.
Here at the Sears Institute for Anti-Aging Medicine, I test my patients regularly for muscle loss. I’ve helped thousands of women prevent sarcopenia, and gain muscle mass no matter their age.
I start with three easy things you can do at home to make sure you have the muscle power to stay independent and active your whole life.
Muscle Builder #1 – Eat More Protein
Protein provides the basic building blocks for your muscles. Sadly, as most people get older – especially women — they tend to eat less protein.
I advise my patients to eat one gram of protein for every pound of lean muscle. The average woman has 20% body fat. So if you weigh 140 pounds, shoot for about 80% of that number or 112 grams of protein a day.
The best sources of muscle-building protein are lean red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and nuts. If you’re not getting enough, protein powders can be a big help. A protein smoothie every day is a reliable way to help build new muscle.
Whey protein is the best. It contains amino acids in proportions that are close to those required by humans. But here’s the problem: most commercial protein powders come from grain-fed cattle. They’re full of hormones and antibiotics. Instead, look for whey protein from grass-fed animals.
Muscle Builder #2 – Boost This Amino Acid
The amino acid L-carnitine has been shown to promote healthy muscle mass in older adults who are prone to sarcopenia.2
And L-carnitine builds muscle no matter how old you are. In a study of very weak people aged 100 to 106, half were given two grams of L-carnitine daily. The other half got a placebo.
The results were stunning. In just six months, people taking L-carnitine gained an average of 3.8 kilograms of muscle – an increase of 11%. Also, their fatigue dropped 44% and their ability to remain independent and active shot up 16%.3
I take 500 milligrams per day of L-carnitine. But make sure you get natural L-carnitine and not synthetic D, L-carnitine. The D-form interferes with the natural action of the L-carnitine.
Muscle Builder #3 – Use Muscle to Build Muscle
Exercise is key to preserving muscle. But I’m not talking about running marathons. In fact, long sessions of cardio can actually strip you of muscle.
Instead, focus on resistance training like good old-fashioned calisthenics. In one study, 21 frail, elderly subjects took part in resistance training. After just 11 weeks, their muscle fiber increased by up to 60%. And they had an overall improvement in balance, strength and physical ability, making them less likely to fall.4
Another study followed women over the age of 80. Three times a week they did short but intense exercise routines similar to my PACE program. After just 36 sessions they increased their lower-body muscle mass 26% and their leg muscle power by 31%.5
Here are a few of my favorite PACE calisthenic exercises. You can do them in short bursts of 12 minutes or less.
- Squats – for your thighs and buttocks: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Squat as far as possible, bringing your arms forward parallel to the floor. Return to standing position.
- Leg Levers – for your back and abs: Lie on your back, legs six inches off the ground. Lift legs another foot higher, return to starting position.
- Modified Push-ups – for your chest and arms: Kneel down, palms against the floor under your shoulders. Move your knees back until they are slightly behind your hips. Bend your elbows and lower your chest toward the floor. Push back up with your arms. Remember to keep a straight line from your head through your knees.
Repeat one of these exercises until you’re slightly winded. Then rest. And to make it truly PACE, remember to increase the intensity slightly with each set. Also, to get more muscle strength even faster, shorten your recovery time between sets, or get up to your desired intensity faster.
To Your Good Health,
Al Sears, MD, CNS
1. Janssen et al. “Low relative skeletal muscle mass (sarcopenia) in older persons is associated with functional impairment and physical disability.” Journal of the American Geriatric Society. 2002; 50(5):889-96.
2. Gomes MR, Tirapegui J. “Relation of some nutritional supplements and physical performance.” Arch Latinoam Nutr. 2000;50(4):317-29.
3. Mariano Malaguarnera, Lisa Cammalleri, Maria Pia Gargante, et al. “L-Carnitine treatment reduces severity of physical and mental fatigue and increases cognitive functions in centenarians: a randomized and controlled clinical trial.” Am J Clin Nutr 2007 vol. 86 no. 6 1738-1744.
4. LaStayo P., et al. “The positive effects of negative work: increased muscle strength and decreased fall risk in a frail elderly population.” J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2003; 58(5): M419-424
5. Raue U, Slivka D, Minchev K, Trappe S. “Improvements in whole muscle and myocellular function are limited with high-intensity resistance training in octogenarian women.” J Appl Physiol. 2009;106(5):1611-7.