Is It Really All Downhill After 30?

Tania Rakchaev
July 3, 2023
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If you're not familiar with the term sarcopenia, it's when we begin to lose muscle mass and strength. This is frequently associated with ageing and is commonly assumed to begin once you reach your 30s, though it is sometimes claimed to begin as early as your 20s. This is believable because many athletes are "past their prime" in their late 20s, and it's easy to assume that this is due to being unable to keep up with younger players; additionally, most people begin to notice weight gain and other "signs of ageing" around this time in life.

But what if I told you that sarcopenia has nothing to do with age?

Many well-known athletes retire due to injuries, having other interests, fulfilling their expectations, and having earned enough money by their 30s. While in some sports, such as bodybuilding and powerlifting, many athletes peak in their 30s and 40s rather than their 20s.

Interestingly, research now shows that age has no bearing on the rate of muscle growth or the development of strength in individuals between the ages of 18 and 39 after standardized strength training1. Nor is age a factor in sarcopenia. Muscle biopsies indicate that there is no evidence of age-related deterioration in muscle tissue2. A scientific review on sarcopenia came to the following conclusion: "The primary causes of sarcopenia include a sedentary lifestyle and malnutrition." However, age will undoubtedly have some effects at some time (which we shall cover later)3.

Most people don't gain weight or lose muscle as they get older; instead, it is more directly related to lifestyle and nutritional factors, which alter as people go through various life stages related to aging.

Although there were some declines specifically in endurance athletes, a study of high-level masters athletes found no significant loss of lean body mass or strength from 40 to 81 years of age in people who kept exercising. The study concluded: "This study contradicts the common observation that muscle mass and strength decline as a function of aging alone. Instead, these declines may signal the effect of chronic disuse rather than muscle aging."4

Several other studies have concluded that age alone is not a cause of muscle loss, nor does the potential to gain muscle from exercise decline with age.5,6,7

So, what changes as we age?

Metabolism? Nope. Again, up to the age of 60, this is not affected by age alone, but rather by declining activity, which leads to muscle loss (use it or lose it is a thing)8. Our metabolism slows down by up to 20% after the age of 60, but there is no reason you can't get lean and healthy at and beyond this age. It simply requires being more mindful of your eating habits.

To counteract some of the physiological changes that occur in our 60s and beyond, a few things should, however, change for maximum benefit.

Sarcopenia is typically caused by anabolic resistance, which slows the rate at which muscle is built (anabolism). As previously stated, this is primarily due to decreased activity rather than age. The best way to combat this is to stay lean and maintain an active lifestyle throughout your life. This can also be managed with nutrition protocols once you are in your 60s or older, such as increasing protein intake as the leucine threshold (an amino acid found in good protein sources that is thought to be responsible for stimulating muscle protein synthesis - aka signals your body to build muscle) and limiting the number of meals to four per day at most. This allows you to meet that goal with each meal.9

Other changes include the loss of neuromuscular signaling and control. We lose some of our strength, speed, and coordination. This is easily remedied by using lighter weights for more reps. Interestingly, when we lose muscle due to sarcopenia, we lose more fast twitch muscle fibers than slow twitch muscle fibers.10

We also lose connective tissue as we age11. This is primarily due to decreased growth hormone production, which increases the likelihood of injury and joint problems. Again, this is easily managed by lifting more slowly and with more repetitions at a lighter weight. However, for soft tissue strength, it is still important to train to 70% RM on occasion.

So, with all this information and no excuses for your age, what are you capable of?

References

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19749605/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25965867/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19800212/
  4. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3810/psm.2011.09.1933
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11890579/
  6. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ggi.13010
  7. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2021.636972/full
  8. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abe5017
  9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25056502/
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7493202/
  11. https://www.nature.com/articles/nrrheum.2010.43

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Tania Rakchaev
Tania Rakchaev