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How to Maintain Muscle Mass as You Age: Good Exercise vs. Bad Exercise

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As we age, it is natural for our bodies to undergo changes, including a reduction in muscle mass, strength, and function. This condition, known as sarcopenia, can begin as early as our 30s and continue at a rate of 3% to 5% per decade. However, the good news is that strength training can help maintain and rebuild muscle at any age. In fact, research shows that older adults may see even greater improvements in muscle strength compared to younger adults. So, it’s never too late to start incorporating strength training into your exercise program.

How to maintain muscle mass as you age

The Importance of Strength Training as You Age

Without strength training, individuals can lose up to 30% of their muscle mass between the ages of 50 and 70, with muscle loss accelerating further after 70. This loss of muscle mass not only increases the risk of osteoporosis, falls, and injuries but also impacts balance and energy levels, making daily activities more difficult. Ultimately, it can limit one’s ability to enjoy life and live independently.

To prevent this muscle loss and its consequences, it is crucial to incorporate strength training into your exercise routine. Strength training challenges your muscles, allowing you to gradually build strength and function, thereby reducing the risk of falls and injuries. It is an essential component of maintaining an active lifestyle and promoting overall physical health.

Getting Started with a Strength Training Program

Starting a strength training program may seem intimidating, but with the right strategies, it can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Set Goals

Start by setting specific goals that you would like to achieve through strength training. Whether it’s trying a new sport, taking regular morning walks, or playing with your grandkids, having clear goals will help keep you motivated and focused.

Start Slowly

Before each strength training session, warm up with five minutes of dynamic stretching or cardio exercise. If you are new to strength training, begin with one set of 8-15 repetitions for each muscle group. Choose a weight that is challenging but allows you to complete the set. Gradually increase the number of sets and resistance as your body strengthens.

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Modify Exercises

If you are participating in an in-person or virtual class, make sure to modify the movements to suit your limitations and range of motion. Over time, your strength and range of motion will increase, allowing you to perform more challenging exercises. Avoid any exercises that cause pain and discomfort.

Be Consistent

Commit to a routine and stick with it. You don’t need to work out for hours each day. Instead, set aside time for two to three strength training sessions each week. If needed, you can even break your workouts into shorter sessions throughout the day. Exercising with a workout buddy can also help you stay motivated and consistent.

Try Balance-Challenging Exercises

Include exercises that challenge your balance in your strength training routine. If you are physically able, perform exercises while standing to improve your balance. For example, standing shoulder presses with dumbbells challenge your balance more than seated shoulder presses on a machine. Additionally, incorporate standing bodyweight exercises, such as single-leg balance and lateral leg raises, to further improve balance and overall fitness. These weight-bearing exercises also promote bone health and muscle building.

Seek Professional Help

If you are new to strength training, consider meeting with an exercise physiologist, physical therapist, or athletic trainer to get started. These professionals can teach you the proper form for each exercise, ensuring you benefit from them while avoiding injury. As you gain confidence and skills, you will feel more comfortable working out independently.

Fuel Your Muscles with Protein

As you age, your body requires more protein to maintain strong muscles and keep your body energized. Ensure that your diet includes lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, lentils, and beans, as these are all excellent sources of protein. Aim to get between 10% and 35% of your daily calories from protein.

Remember that strength training, along with 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise each week, will help you stay active and injury-free. By incorporating these strategies into your routine, you can maintain and even improve your muscle mass, strength, and overall physical health as you age.

The Science Behind Muscle Loss and Aging

Muscle loss, or sarcopenia, is a common issue that many older adults face. It is a result of various factors, including changes in muscle tissue and cells, hormonal shifts, and a decrease in physical activity. Understanding these factors is crucial in mitigating muscle loss and maintaining muscle mass as we age.

Changes in Muscle Tissue and Cells

Muscle is a dynamic tissue that undergoes continuous turnover throughout our lives. Muscle tissue consists of long, slim fibers, each containing a single muscle cell. These cells produce proteins like actin and myosin, which allow muscles to contract and relax. However, as we age, the overall number of muscle cells and mitochondria, responsible for energy production, declines. Mutations may also accumulate in muscle cells, leading to the production of faulty proteins that affect muscle function.

Additionally, the connection between muscles and the nervous system, known as the neuromuscular junction, can be impaired with age. This can result in weakness and a decline in muscle mass. Hormonal changes, such as a decrease in testosterone levels, can further contribute to age-related muscle loss. Poor nutrition and reduced appetite, common in older adults, can also exacerbate muscle loss.

The Role of Physical Activity and Exercise

While natural aging plays a significant role in muscle loss, a sedentary lifestyle or lack of physical activity can accelerate this process. Physical inactivity leads to a decrease in muscle mass and strength, even in younger individuals. Therefore, incorporating regular physical activity and exercise is crucial in maintaining muscle mass as we age.

Various studies have shown that resistance training, also known as strength training, is effective in increasing muscle mass in older adults. High-velocity resistance training, which combines lifting weights quickly and using heavier weights, has been particularly beneficial. These exercises can be tailored to individual needs and abilities, including basic movements like chair stands, leg lifts, and triceps extensions.

It is essential to note that muscle size is not the sole indicator of strength. Even if muscle mass gains are not immediately apparent, individuals can experience improvements in strength and functional abilities. Regular exercise strengthens the connection between the nervous system and muscles, enhancing overall physical function and quality of life.

Maintaining Muscle Mass: Good Exercise vs. Bad Exercise

When it comes to maintaining muscle mass as you age, not all exercises are created equal. Some exercises are more effective in preventing muscle loss and promoting muscle growth, while others may not provide the same benefits. Understanding the difference between good exercise and bad exercise can help you make informed choices in your fitness routine.

Good Exercise: Strength Training

Strength training, also known as resistance training, is the cornerstone of maintaining muscle mass as you age. It involves challenging your muscles through exercises that target specific muscle groups. Strength training can be performed using various equipment, such as dumbbells, resistance bands, weight machines, or even your body weight.

The primary goal of strength training is to increase muscle strength and function. By progressively overloading your muscles with resistance, you stimulate muscle growth and adaptation. This helps to counteract the natural decline in muscle mass that occurs with age. Strength training also improves bone density, joint stability, and overall physical performance.

Bad Exercise: Cardiovascular Exercise Alone

While cardiovascular exercise, such as walking, running, or cycling, is beneficial for cardiovascular health and overall fitness, it is not sufficient for maintaining muscle mass on its own. Cardiovascular exercise primarily focuses on improving cardiovascular endurance and burning calories, rather than specifically targeting muscle growth and maintenance.

Engaging in cardiovascular exercise alone may lead to a loss of muscle mass over time, especially if strength training is not incorporated into the fitness routine. To maintain muscle mass, it is crucial to combine cardiovascular exercise with regular strength training exercises.

The Importance of Balance and Flexibility

In addition to strength training and cardiovascular exercise, incorporating exercises that improve balance and flexibility is essential for overall physical health and injury prevention. As we age, maintaining good balance becomes increasingly important in preventing falls and maintaining independence.

Exercises such as yoga, tai chi, and Pilates can help improve balance, flexibility, and core strength. These exercises focus on stability, coordination, and proper body alignment, which are vital for maintaining muscle function and preventing injuries.


Maintaining muscle mass as you age requires a comprehensive approach that includes regular strength training, cardiovascular exercise, and exercises that improve balance and flexibility. Strength training is particularly crucial as it directly stimulates muscle growth and helps counteract the natural decline in muscle mass that occurs with age. By challenging your muscles through progressively overloaded resistance training, you can maintain and even increase muscle strength, function, and overall physical health.

Remember to start slowly, set clear goals, and seek professional guidance if needed. Incorporate exercises that challenge your balance and flexibility to enhance overall physical performance and prevent falls. And don’t forget to fuel your muscles with a balanced diet that includes adequate protein.

By embracing a well-rounded exercise routine that includes good exercise practices and avoids bad exercise habits, you can maintain muscle mass, improve physical function, and enjoy a healthier and more active lifestyle as you age.

Additional Information: It is important to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new exercise program, especially if you have any underlying health conditions or concerns.

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