Can you build muscle as an older adult?
As we age, our muscle mass gradually decreases. But strength training — or resistance training — can help you maintain or build muscle at any age.
We generally start to lose muscle mass in our 30s. At first, this happens at a rate of around 3–8% per decade. As we reach our 60s, we lose muscle mass more quickly.
Resistance training focuses on strengthening your muscles. It can involve lifting weights, doing bodyweight exercises like push-ups, or using resistance bands.
This is different from cardio exercise, which involves doing continual movement that increases your heart rate and breathing.
With the right strength training program, you can build muscle after 50.
In this article, we give you tips for starting out and an example exercise plan. We also explain how much protein you need to help maintain your muscle as you get older.
Why is strength training important?
Strength training is one of the best ways to help maintain or build your muscles and keep them working properly.
Keeping your muscles in good shape is key. Reduced muscle mass and function as we age is linked to a range of health issues that can impact our quality of life.
These health issues include:
A loss of muscle mass can also make it harder to maintain a healthy weight.
What happens to our muscles as we age?
The size and strength of our muscles increases well into adulthood, before starting to gradually decline as time goes by.
According to a large-scale research project, muscle mass and strength peak at around 30–35 years and decrease slowly afterwards.
One reason for the loss of muscle mass and strength is a process called anabolic resistance: Your muscles become less efficient at turning the protein you eat into new muscle.
How long does it take to lose muscle?
We’re likely to lose an average of 3–8% of muscle mass every 10 years after the age of about 30.
That may be around 4–6 pounds (just under 2–3 kilograms) of muscle if you’re not doing regular strength training.
Once you reach your 60s, you start to lose more.
It’s not just muscle size that aging affects. The quality of your muscles and how well they work may also decline.
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Sarcopenia is the name for age-related loss of muscle mass and function. It usually refers to the point when these changes start affecting your day-to-day tasks.
Possible symptoms of sarcopenia include:
feeling tired more quickly when active
difficulty walking or getting around
difficulty with weight-bearing tasks, like lifting or standing up
difficulty with balance, possibly leading to falls
Sarcopenia is also linked with obesity. The term “sarcopenic obesity” refers to having both conditions.
Tips for starting a strength training program
Strength training involves lifting weights or using weight machines, doing bodyweight exercises, and using elasticated resistance bands.
The weights don’t have to be heavy to be effective. They may weigh only a couple of pounds (1 kg).
Bodyweight exercises are things like squats and push-ups.
They also include lower-intensity activities, like leg raises in a chair or “sit-to-stands” — standing up from a seated position.
Adding any exercise to your routine is a positive move. And where you begin will depend on your current fitness level, your age, and any health conditions.
If you have a medical condition that could affect what you’re able to do, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting a strength training program.
Here are some other important tips:
Get help to get started: A qualified personal trainer can help you design a personalized routine that’s right for your ability and goals. Also, plenty of online videos and apps will guide you through routines for different fitness levels.
Work out regularly: Try to do strength training exercises at least twice a week.
Work on your whole body: Your exercise plan should cover all your major muscle groups: legs, shoulders, triceps, biceps, chest, back, and core. This will reduce your risk of injuries and help improve your overall mobility.
Increase gradually: To build muscle, you need to keep challenging your body. Start with 8–12 repetitions of each exercise. As you get stronger, add another set of reps or increase the weight.
Small changes can make a big difference: In one study, older adults did two 10-minute, low-intensity exercise sessions at home every day. After 28 days, they could do 31% more sit-to-stands, and their leg strength and muscle size had increased.
We asked two of ZOE’s nutrition coaches what belongs in an exercise plan for healthy adults aged 50 and above who are looking to build muscle.
Alex Platts is a senior coach, with an M.Sc. in nutrition and a bachelor’s degree in sports and exercise. Philippa Boag-Sharland has an M.Sc. in sports and exercise nutrition and accreditation from the Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register, in the United Kingdom.
The plan they designed involves weights but no bars or weight machines.
If you don’t have dumbbells, you might use two cans of beans or two 2-liter bottles of water, for example.
As you get stronger, you can increase the weight and add a third strength training day to your week.
The days below are just suggestions. When planning your routine, just be sure to have some days of rest between your sessions.
squats (with or without weights): 8–12 reps
overhead shoulder press: 8–12 reps
bent over rows: 8–12 reps for each arm
lunges (with or without weights): 8–12 reps for each leg
bicep curls: 8–12 reps
push-ups (on or off knees): 8–12 reps
crunches: 10–20 reps
hip hinges: 8–10 reps
chest presses: 8–12 reps
curtsey squats: 8–10 reps with each leg
tricep dips: 8–12 reps
calf raises: 15–20 reps
front shoulder raises: 8–12 reps for each arm
leg raises: 10–20 reps
It’s usually best to start strength training sessions with exercises that involve movement of multiple joints.
These are called “compound movements.” They require more work from secondary muscle groups, so it’s best to do these before your muscles get tired.
Then, move on to exercises that only involve movement of one joint.
You should also aim to do some exercise that focuses on strength and conditioning at least once a week.
Pilates, yoga, and tai chi, for example, can improve your core strength, body alignment, flexibility, and balance.
Making this part of your weekly routine can lead to better posture and more efficient movement, and it can relieve many common aches and pains.
How much protein do I need to keep muscle?
In the United States, the daily recommended dietary allowance of protein for adults is 0.8 grams per kg of bodyweight. So, if you weigh 82 kg (180 lbs), you’d need to eat around 67 g of protein every day.
When you do strength training, your body breaks down and rebuilds the protein in your muscles.
To optimize your workout, you may want to increase the amount of protein you eat to 1.2 to 1.6 g per kg of bodyweight, according to experts.
As you age, your body becomes less efficient at using the protein you eat to build muscle. This means that older people need more protein in their diets.
Experts suggest that older adults get around 1.2 to 2 g of protein per kg of bodyweight each day.
If you’re an older person aiming to build muscle through strength training, it may make sense to aim for the higher ends of these ranges.
For someone weighing 82 kg (180 lbs), 1.6 g per kg of bodyweight would work out at around 131 g of protein a day.
It’s best to get protein from healthy whole foods.
Good choices include:
tofu and tempeh
fish, including salmon or sea bass
chicken or turkey
lean, unprocessed meats
dairy products, like milk, yogurt, or cottage cheese
To find out more, check out the ZOE Science & Nutrition podcast on protein and exercise.
Other diet tips
Here are some other things to bear in mind:
Have protein throughout the day: There’s a limit to how much protein your body can use at once.
Eat a wide range of plants: Plant sources of protein come with a host of other nutrients, including fiber. Eating as wide a variety as possible is the best way to boost your overall health and maximize the potential for muscle growth.
At ZOE, we run the world’s largest nutrition science study. We know that eating a variety of different plants — ideally 30 a week — can have a big impact on your gut health. And in turn, this can have other benefits.
With our at-home test, you can learn how healthy your gut is and how your body’s blood sugar and fat levels respond to different foods. With this information, our personalized nutrition program can advise you about the best foods for your health goals.
Learn how it works and take our free quiz.
We need more protein as we age. If you’re looking to build muscle, try to have 1.2 to 2 g of protein for every kg of your body weight. Try to aim for the top of that range.
The best protein sources are healthy whole foods. These include lean, unprocessed meats, as well as plants like legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Does cardio make you lose muscle?
No, cardio doesn’t lead to muscle loss. It can actually increase muscle mass.
Studies suggest that people who do more cardio exercise throughout their lives tend to have stronger, better working, and larger muscles than those who aren’t physically active.
Cardio and resistance training go well together. Strengthening your muscles helps support your body during cardio workouts, while cardiovascular fitness helps you exercise harder during strength training.
Doing enough cardio is important for older adults. It can make daily activities easier and increase your quality of life.
Cardio exercise also improves heart health and reduces the risk of chronic diseases, including dementia.
If we don't eat and exercise strategically, we lose muscle mass as we age.
But doing strength training and eating enough protein can help you build muscle at any age.
It’s a good idea to do strength training two or three times a week and to gradually increase your reps and the weight you’re lifting.
Studies have shown doing small amounts of regular, low-intensity resistance training can quickly improve strength and muscle mass in older adults.
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