When it comes to muscle mass, the phrase “use it or lose it” can get very literal. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, age-related changes in skeletal muscle mass are a part of everyday life—but that doesn’t mean you can’t significantly slow the process down.
Researchers looked at 234 women aged 47 to 55, who were transitioning into menopause. When this happens, hormonal changes, like a decrease in the hormone estradiol, can increase the rate of muscle mass loss—physically inactive people lose three to five percent of this mass each decade after age 30, but it can drop more after age 50, especially for women.
In the study, rates of muscle size was measured at various points during perimenopause—a transition phase which begins several years before menopause—and right after postmenopause. Researchers found that those who remained physically active had higher muscle mass both before and after menopause compared to less active participants.
These results fall in line with similar studies that have shown the significant benefits to body composition—not to mention heart health, cognition, bone density, sleep, and so on—that comes with exercise, for both men and women. Even if you’ve spent a lifetime being pretty sedentary, you can still gain advantages by starting a consistent exercise routine later in life, according to Rosa Maria Rodrigues Pereira, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at the University of São Paulo in Brazil.
Although Pereira was not part of the recent study, her research on exercise and bone mineral density, especially among older adults, has featured the role of muscle mass, she told Runner’s World.
“Muscle mass plays a key role in aging, because if you’re sedentary and losing that mass quickly, it sets you for all types of issues, including greater risk of falls, lower bone mineral density, injuries, and even increased early mortality risk,” she said. “Of course, it helps to build muscle mass when you’re younger, so you can have that coming into older age. But really, starting exercise at any age will give you benefits.”
She added that not only can muscle mass be maintained by exercise, it can also be increased—which means you can reverse the aging process of muscle mass loss. You may need to put in a bit more work, though. A previous study found that people over age 60 need to lift weight more often than younger adults to maintain muscle mass and muscle size.
Elizabeth MillardElizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health, wellness, fitness, and food.
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