By Dr. Amy Whittington, Trilogy’s Naturopathic Physician

It’s time to make your new year resolutions.  Although there are many modifications to consider that can improve your health, there is one often under-valued change that can have lasting implications on how you age.  In the health arena, we are often so focused on what we want to lose, that we forget to see that in the big picture, we should be striving to gain . . . to gain muscle, that is.  Muscle strength equals vitality, and in our very older years, our remaining muscle can be the difference between function and frailty.  So, in this time of resolution, instead of just setting weight loss goals, consider resolving to find your strength.

Sarcopenia, or muscle wasting with age, is a phenomenon that begins early in life.  With depletions in hormones, changes in muscle production, and increases in fat storage, our muscles tend to peak at around age 25.  The good news is that sarcopenia is a relatively slow process for most of us, and changes from year to year can seem negligible.  Risk factors too are mostly negligible, until many years have gone by.  Initial complaints are often associated with the most obvious, which is a decrease in strength and physicality.  Later complaints, however, are more ominous and include a much higher risk factor for osteoporosis (we need muscles to pull on our bones so our bones will remain strong), and a general vulnerability that comes with frailty (for falls and decreased energy stores should the body need to fight disease).

A phenomenon known as sarcopenic obesity can also occur in apparently thin people that have a fatty infiltration where muscles used to be.  This can be difficult to assess, as the person’s physique can stay consistent, but their risk for obesity-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, increases.  Muscle wasting also leads to an energy conundrum, as energy production itself gets caught in a negative feedback loop, with a lower tolerance for exercise leading to further depletion of lean tissue, which in turn leads to an even lower exercise tolerance, and a lower production of energy.

Thankfully, we are beginning to understand methods to decrease sarcopenia, and even how to improve muscle building at any age. The key is to start now with strategies to maintain muscle strength.  No matter what your age, building muscle will be easier this year than next.

Studies show that a primary reason for muscle wasting is a decreased intake of protein, as well as the body’s  blunted ability to process protein into muscle tissue.  We can boost the production of muscle by increasing our protein intake. There is also an advantage to taking in easily processed forms of the back-bone of protein, known as amino acids, thereby supporting increased muscle production.  The majority of us, regardless of age, can benefit by simply increasing protein.  Including meats, chicken, fish and/or legumes in your diet daily is an important component of your muscle health.  Consider that a 4-ounce serving of lean beef can boost protein synthesis 51 percent in an older person for five hours after consumption.  I find that many patients have been trained to view animal meats as completely bad due to risk for cardiovascular disease and high fat content.  As with nearly every nutritional component, the key is moderation as opposed to complete avoidance.  If you are limiting yourself to no red meat (or just once or twice a month), your muscles might be suffering.  Most people should be able to safely consume 1-2 servings per week (with exceptions for those with extreme heart conditions and/or kidney disease).  On other days you should include chicken, fish, or legumes.

If you have difficulty with daily consumption of protein, it has been shown that protein powders or shakes, such as whey or rice, can also improve muscle retention.  If the effects of sarcopenia are occurring more rapidly, or your risk factors are high, then an amino acid supplement can be considered.  Readily available supplements usually include branched chained amino acids in either supplement form or within a protein powder.  Proocessing protein and amino acids requires extra effort by the kidneys, and anyone with kidney-related disease should have their intake of proteins monitored by their treating physicians.

The best and most substantiated method of decreasing sarcopenia is with progressive resistance training.  Learning how to properly lift weights is a great time to utilize the advice of those trainers in your gyms.  In general, resistance training with resistance machines or free-weights should consist of high repetition sets.  It has been shown that with age (after 25), there is a replacement of faster acting muscle fibers (fast-twitch fibers), with slower acting ones (slow-twitch).  High repetition will help to promote fast-twitch fibers more efficiently than slowly lifting heavier weights.  Don’t confuse high repetition with less work however, as at the end of each set, you want to achieve some muscle fatigue to make gains in strength.  You also want your pace and weights to be appropriate so as to not induce injury. You should progressively challenge yourself to safely build muscle by reaching a perceived exertion of about 5-6 on a scale of 10 (10 being maximum) after 8-10 repetitions.  After a rest, the repetitions should be repeated, and then follow a similar pattern for all the major muscle groups.  Weight-bearing exercises like walking, running, yoga, or Pilates are also great ways to promote lean tissue, and again, if they involve quicker movements, fast-twitch fibers will be promoted.

Protein synthesis (again, the building of muscles from protein) occurs even more efficiently with resistance training combined with protein intake.  In fact, studies have shown that more efficient muscle building occurs when protein is consumed right after a work out as compared to when protein is consumed two hours or more after exercise.

Lower energy requirements and lessening of taste bud sensitivity can also lead to a decreased appetite as we age.  This can in turn lead to a decrease in the intake of micronutrients needed to properly metabolize energy and build muscle.  Vitamins E, C, the B family and others have been implicated, but currently the best strategy seems to be to supplement in a general manner (such as a multiple vitamin) to fill in any gaps in nutrition.

Sarcopenia is a naturally occurring process with age.  However, it is one that we can slow down, and in the process, slow aging itself.  So this year, instead of standing on that scale and picking a lower number, or looking at the tags of your clothes and striving for a smaller size, perhaps you need a new strategy toward optimal health…a strategy to gain.  Gain muscle, gain strength, and gain years on your life.

Take Care & Stay Healthy,

Dr. Amy Whittington
Trilogy’s Naturopathic Physician