By: Cat Ebeling, RN, MSN-PHN, co-author of the best-sellers: The Fat Burning Kitchen, The Top 101 Foods that Fight Aging & The Diabetes Fix
Want to know the BEST way to slow down aging and prolong your life?
Continue to build muscle.
As we age, we can lose 5-8% of our muscle mass. Men—because they have more muscle mass when younger—tend to lose about 30% of their muscle mass in their lifetime. Women lose muscle at a slower rate, but still lose a lot of muscle. Compared to men, women tend to higher amounts of body fat, lower muscle density and less strength. Although women generally live longer than men, they are at a much higher risk for disability—much of it having to do with loss of muscle as they age.
Keep in mind, I am not just talking about frail, very old men and women. I am talking about anyone over the age of 30! Muscle loss usually begins after the age of 30 for both men and women and increases every year.
Age-related muscle loss, or sarcopenia, can definitely shorten your life. And our muscles do more than just move our bodies. Muscle plays a major role in our metabolism, circulation, brain health, immune function, and even helping other organs function. Because muscles are linked to many systems in the body, research published in The Journal of Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine concludes that a person’s muscle mass is a far better predictor of health than body mass index. And leg strength has been found one of the best ways to predict longevity.
Interestingly, as reported by MedicineNet.com: “Researchers found that leg strength was a better predictor of brain health than any other lifestyle factor looked at in the study.”
Muscle mass helps protect us from falls and enhances our balance and ability to get around as we age. A recent report from the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research found that people with age-related muscle loss have almost 2 and a half times the risk of a fracture from a broken hip, collarbone, leg, arm or wrist.
Loss of muscle also limits or impairs mobility. And when mobility is affected, overall quality of life and independence go way down. Often this can be the deciding factor for assistive devices and having to outside help.
Muscle mass is also the single greatest determinant of our metabolic rate, which is the number of calories we burn per day. People with higher muscle mass burn far more calories than people who have lower muscle mass, even when sitting still.
Muscles also are one of our bodies’ biggest consumers of glucose for fuel, so muscle mass has a big effect on insulin resistance and blood sugar levels. Losing muscle mass with aging is thought to be a primary cause of insulin resistance in older adults. The declining muscle strength and progressive slowing of mobility and activity contributes to metabolic dysfunction, which then can lead to complications like type 2 diabetes.
Another very significant factor having to do with muscle mass—heart and lung health. The heart is a muscle and for those with muscle weakness, this can affect the heart muscle as well. Often people with very low body weight and low muscle mass have a higher risk of heart complications, including heart failure and heart arrhythmias, due to declining strength and mass of the heart muscle.
The Sneaky Ways Declining Levels of Muscle Mass Sabotages Your Health
Loss of resilience from sarcopenia is a major factor in the ability to deal with health challenges. People with low muscle mass also experience an increased risk of acquiring contagious diseases and have higher all-cause mortality. And low muscle mass also increases your risk for pneumonia and other lung diseases.
Our skeletal muscle system is actually an organ that helps to regulate the immune system. Muscle cells maintain healthy immune function and regulate both innate and adaptive immune responses. Both of these systems are of extreme importance in fighting viruses such as SarsCoV-2.
While I was an elite level bike racer, which is mostly a cardiovascular workout, I continued to do weight training during the off season. I knew the importance of maintaining strong muscles. Now that I am no longer competitively racing, I regularly lift weights 2-4x a week.
The frustrating thing is that even though I am fit, if I miss a week or so of lifting weights, it’s harder to go back. I get stiff and sore. However, I realize the incredible value weight training has on my ability to move better, balance better, and just feel more confident in my everyday activities. So, I keep at it!
So, while cardio-based exercise is good for your heart and lungs, it will actually break down your muscles and lower your muscle mass. So always accompany cardio-based exercise with a weight training plan.
If you are new to resistance exercise, make it easy to stick to. Incorporate these top movements to help you continue to hold on to—or increase your muscle mass, build up your balance, and help you in your everyday movements and activities. Just say “No” to the grocery bag boy who wants to help you carry your bags to the car!
Remember these principles of resistance training:
1. Keep it consistent—aim to do it 2-3 times a week or more.
2. Incorporate the following movements into your plan.
3. It doesn’t require equipment—you can use items around your house like cans, gallon jugs, rocks, etc.
4. It helps to invest in a few dumbbells (5, 10, 15lbs) and a stretchy band or two you can comfortably put around your thighs.
5. Increase your weights on a regular basis—every 2-3 weeks or so. Or add more reps.
6. Allow a day of recovery in-between training sessions.
It is key to always have significant recovery period to allow your connective tissue and muscles to recover. And the other key is to be sure you are getting enough healthy protein (real food, not powder) in your diet, along with collagen which speeds up muscle recovery and prevents injury.
Every exercise in your strength program has a purpose — to help you build strength and muscle, burn fat and improve your fitness. While there’s a time and a place for nearly any exercise under the right circumstance, some movements are simply more effective than others. It should come as no surprise that the ones that build a foundation for movements you use in everyday tasks, will be the most beneficial for improving fitness and quality of life. These are called “functional exercises,” and should be included in every exercise program.
1. The Squat
The squat is THE most functional exercise you will ever do, and probably one of the best strengthening exercises as well. Think about how many times a day you squat: getting out of bed, going to the bathroom, going up or down stairs, picking things up off the floor, getting in and out of your car, sitting down in a chair—I could go on and on. Leg muscles—or lack thereof–are a primary predictor of longevity.
Begin with legs shoulder width apart. Hold back straight. Keep knees behind the toes. Squat down as low as you can go and stand slowly. Repeat 10-12 times doing 3 sets. For more of a challenge try using a weight or a set of dumbbells. You can also use a wide stretchy band and push the knees out as you squat; this activates the glute medius as well.
2. The Lunge or Split Squat
Another variation on the squat, the lunge helps to focus and concentrate on the smaller balancing muscles of the legs, while working the larger muscles, including the glutes and lower back as well. Standing with your feet slightly apart, take a big step back with one foot. Bend both knees, taking your back knee toward the ground and maintaining a 90-degree angle with the front leg. Push off with the rear leg and stand back up. If you feel out of balance, hold on to a wall, steady chair, counter, etc. For more of a challenge, do walking lunges and add weights. Repeat 10-12 times doing 3 sets.
3. The Deadlift Hinge
Grab some weights, gallon jugs with water or sand, a dumbbell in each hand. Stand with feet a little wider than shoulder-width. Hinge forward from hips with slightly arched back and knees slightly bent. Keep your head up and looking out, not down. (This will help to keep the arch in your lower back. If you round out your back, you run the risk of straining it.) Squeeze your buttocks and feel them contract as you stand back up. Repeat 10-12 times doing 3 sets.
If you don’t feel this move fire up your glutes, your knees aren’t bent enough.
4. The Pushup
Being able to push away from something or push something off you can be a lifesaving move. A pushup activates nearly every muscle in your body, which gives you far more than just toned muscles and increased endurance.
As you lower your body to the floor, you are using every major muscle in your body, including biceps, core and abs, triceps, anterior deltoids, pectorals, and most all your back muscles.
Besides utilizing your muscles to push off a surface, you have to use your muscles in a controlled way to lower yourself as well. And, anyone who does pushups on a regular basis usually has some amazing looking abs!
If you have a hard time doing them from a horizontal position, you can use any angle to help you build up your strength. Try a wall, a countertop or a secure low level table. Keep hands shoulder distance apart, lower slowly, squeeze the shoulder blades together, and push back up into start position. Tighten up your core and don’t let your lower back sag or let your shoulders hunch up. Repeat 10-12 times doing 3 sets.
5. Pulling or Rowing
Muscles used for pulling exercises make up what is known as the posterior chain. The posterior chain is a group of muscles, tendons and ligaments along the back of the body, including the neck, back, hips, and legs.
Modern humans spend too much time seated and hunched over. This tightens the muscles in front of the body and weakens and overstretches the back muscles. Neglecting your posterior chain can negatively affect your posture, mobility, strength, and flexibility, and this sets us up for injuries, arthritis and overly tight muscles.
This exercise can be done either seated or bent over a low table. Keeping back straight, pull in with a weight or stretchy band, until elbows and upper arms are aligned with your sides. Squeeze and contract the muscles in between the shoulder blades. Do not allow your shoulders to come up—instead keep chest out and shoulders down. Since our back muscles are most often overstretched and far weaker than our chest muscles, we should do pulling or rowing exercises often. Repeat 10-12 times doing 3 sets or more.
6. The Glute Bridge
Having strong, functional gluteal and hip muscles can help you avoid injury or strain in your low back, hips, knees, and ankles by creating proper alignment and stability. Our glutes, or ‘butt’ muscles extend and rotate the hips, help us sit down and get up, walk, run, or jump. Every step you take, your glutes are working to stabilize your hips and lower back.
Sitting all day weakens our glutes and shortens our hip flexors and hamstrings. It can also cause lower back problems when our glutes are weak. Glutes are key for balance and mobility too. And of course, nice firm rounded glute muscles also look pretty good too—whether you are a man or woman.
Lie on your back on the floor. Bend knees and place feet flat on ground. Lift hips up to maximum level, lifting entire back up off ground. Only your head and shoulders should be on the floor. Extend up as far as you can, hold and come down. Repeat 12-15 times, doing 2-3 sets. For more challenging bridges, add a stretchy band around your thighs and push out as you lift up.
7. The Plank
Planks are one of those under-utilized and under-appreciated exercises for your whole core. Your core is the whole part of your torso, front and back. Working out your core improves your stability, reduces injury and helps with balance. Planks also put your arms to use, your legs, your chest and some of your back as well. Planks will also improve your posture.
Planks also help you develop strength your abs and back muscles, which gives you the power to stand up straight and hold your back and hips in alignment. And, planks are easy to modify to make easier or harder.
For starters, you can do the most basic plank. Lie on your stomach on your forearms and push off. Hold your abs tight and keep your lower back from sagging down. Hold this position for 15-30 seconds or more. For a more challenging plank, pull your abs in and pull yourself up to a ‘V’, then lower yourself back down slowly. Repeat 10-12 times.
8. Quadruped Row
This exercise is actually one of my favorites. It’s much harder than it looks, and it works all of the core muscles, including the all the different muscles of the abdominal area, the lower back, the upper back and the glutes. Plus it really helps you pinpoint and eliminate any weak spots in your core. It also targets your balance. I notice sore muscles I never knew I had!
Begin on the floor on all fours. Pick up a weight (5-10lbs is a good starting point) and hold it in one hand. Then extend out the leg on the opposite side. While holding the leg out and balancing, pull the weight in towards your body as in a bent-over row. Extend the arm back down and repeat. When you are ready for more of a challenge, try this on a weight bench and increase the dumbbell weight.
If you desire to live a long high quality life, I suggest you start incorporating these exercises 2-3 times a week. The stronger you are today, the longer (and better) you’re likely to live in the future.
1. Strength in your legs is likely a bigger predictor of future health than the amount of muscle you have overall, but for better mobility, better health, and better balance, it’s important to work your whole body.
2. Consume adequate amounts of protein to maintain your muscle and strength as you get older. You can give your body a boost on muscle by switching out carbs for an extra serving of chicken or turkey whenever possible.
If you found this article to your liking and would like to read about how exercise can slow down the aging process, check out what my friends Steve and Becky have discovered to keep yourself young and fit.
Did you know that certain exercises can help you slow aging and help you to look younger, but other specific types of exercises can actually age you FASTER. Not good!
Make sure to AVOID the types of exercises that accelerate aging in your body. My colleague Steve Holman explains which exercises to avoid at this article:
This exercise accelerates AGING in your body (plus 5 tips to look 10 years younger)
Steve also shows you on that page which specific format of exercise helps reverse aging!