Prevent Sarcopenia (muscle loss):
By Michael Colgan, Ph.D.
Loss of skeletal muscle mass and function with aging is called sarcopenia. It is deadly. Sarcopenia includes loss of muscle quantity and quality, loss of motor neurons that enable muscles to contract, loss of strength and especially muscle power, and a steep decline in muscle repair and recovery. In addition, there is a progressive increase in oxidative stress, chronic inflammation, and pain.
Because muscles supply the immune system with the glutamine required to make immune cells, loss of muscle also causes a loss of immune function (1). By complex effects, including a decline of oxygen to the brain because of reduced muscle contraction, sarcopenia is also linked to death of brain cells and loss of cognition and memory with age (2). Frequently, being overweight masks the appearance of sarcopenia, and only adds to the problem.
Since 1989, when it was first measured accurately, sarcopenia has grown to epidemic proportions in the US and Canada (3-6). In otherwise healthy people over 40, it can be as high as one in every four tested. Researchers on aging generally agree that it is a self-inflicted outcome that is almost 100 percent preventable.
The Right Protein
Here are the two simple steps to prevent sarcopenia lifelong: First, you have to have sufficient high-quality protein in your diet to maintain lean muscle. Because muscle protein synthesis becomes less efficient with age, only first–class protein will do it. Numerous studies, the latest just published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in May 2011, show that whey protein, similar to that found in IsaLean Shake, is the best (7). It stimulates muscle protein uptake better than other proteins common in shakes.
Research shows that for people over age 40, the Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein [0.8 grams per kilogram] may not be sufficient. A controlled study found muscle was not maintained in subjects fed the RDA (8). Following this type of research since the 1990s, the Colgan Institute has recommended increased protein, especially for those who exercise regularly (which we hope is everyone). Consequently, in addition to protein in meals, we generally recommend a minimum of two protein shakes per day. Each shake should contain 20 to 25 grams of whey protein, one taken upon rising in the morning, and one within 30 minutes after working out (these are the times when the body most needs it).
The Right Exercise
The second step to maintain your muscle power for life is the right type of exercise. Sorry to say that jogging or aerobics classes will not fill the bill. Numerous comparative studies now show that resistance exercise is the only effective way (9-11). But it has to be the right resistance exercise. Many gym programs use slow, restricted machine exercises to increase strength and muscle size. I suggest they do not work to prevent sarcopenia, because the major loss in sarcopenia is a neuromuscular loss of power. Power is strength multiplied by speed in free movements. Usual gym strength training does not increase power (12-15).
Balance exercise is a key component to preventing falls in old age.
The Colgan Power Program was developed specifically to train power in athletes, and we have since adapted it for general muscle training to inhibit the sarcopenia of aging(14). There are many factors involved, so I can mention only a couple of the most important here. To get a full explanation you can consult the book (14).
First, as you age, gravity gradually compresses your spine. Most back problems stem from that compression, not from disease. After age 30, you do not want to do a lot of resistance exercise that adds to that compression. So, our first rule for lifelong resistance training, is to do exercises that lengthen the spine while contracting the muscles. We have developed hundreds of these exercises, now used by many thousands of people worldwide.
Our program gets people into the habit of working out daily for 30 minutes, with two protein shakes, one in the morning, and one immediately after workout. Many people who have adopted this simple routine over the last two decades, are physically more robust than their peers, enjoy better health than their peers, and are measurably aging more slowly. For them sarcopenia is not an issue.
The second factor I will note is balance. As part of sarcopenia, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive senses decline, and balance and coordination decline with them. That is why the biggest risk for healthy older people is a fall. Their balance systems no longer register the falling until it is too late. With the right resistance training, with a balance component, you can prevent loss of balance lifelong (16).
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