As people age, they tend to lose muscle mass and muscle function. The process is known as sarcopenia and tends to begin in a person’s 30s.
The loss of muscle is most significant for people who are inactive and they may lose around 3% to 5% of their muscle mass for every 10 years past 30 (1).
But, muscle loss remains significant even for those who are active.
Likewise, the issue becomes stronger as people age, speeding up as they reach their senior years.
This pattern means that muscle loss is an important consideration, regardless of your age. But, figuring out how to reverse age related muscle loss isn’t always easy.
After all, the issue means that people are losing muscle even if they are physically active.
So, what is going on? And, more importantly, what is the process for how to reverse age related muscle loss?
Why Muscle Loss Matters at Any Age
In modern society, people tend to focus on muscle mass from an appearance perspective. For example, bodybuilders intentionally focus on bulking up, often relying on products like whey protein powder or approaches like carb cycling, to do so.
Yet, many other people tend to ignore muscle mass altogether.
In particular, people who focus on weight loss often simply try to lose as much weight as possible. As part of that process, it’s fairly common to lose muscle at the same time as fat.
However, despite this focus, muscle mass and body composition are much more important than people realize.
For one thing, significant loss of muscle mass can reduce strength and stamina, while also making people weaker.
Sarcopenia is also a significant factor in frailty for older adults and increases the chance of fractures and falls (2).
To make matters worse, the various symptoms of muscle loss can also lead to reduced activity, which just increases muscle loss.
But, even for younger people, muscle loss is an important topic.
Our body composition plays a key role in health. For example, research has found a significant connection between muscles and longevity, suggesting that people with higher muscle mass may tend to live longer (3).
There is also an issue known as skinny fat. This refers to people who are thin by society’s standards but still have a poor ratio of fat to muscle.
Even though they are thin, people with this body composition can still be subject to some of the health issues that conventionally fat people experience. This includes a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes (4,5,6).
To make matters worse, many people simply don’t think about muscle mass, so they may not be aware that they are at risk (7).
So, not only does muscle offer some health benefits but having a poor balance of muscle and fat can put you at risk, even if you are conventionally thin.
This is true at any age. But, age related muscle loss means that your risks can easily increase as you get older, especially if you’re not taking steps to keep a healthy body composition.
Muscle is important for health, helping to promote longevity. Likewise, a healthy body composition can play a role in decreasing diabetes and heart disease risk
How to Prevent Age Related Muscle Loss
The simplest answer for how to prevent age related muscle loss is simply to stay active. Realistically, the more you use your muscles, the less likely you are to experience muscle loss.
In particular, it’s important to focus on activities that rely on your muscles and to vary these up. The key recommendation here is to emphasize strength or resistance training.
As a result, staying active by walking or similar tasks may not be enough to prevent the muscle loss.
Nevertheless, staying active may not be enough to prevent age related muscle loss, much less reverse it. After all, this type of muscle loss does occur even among people who are active.
So, what else can you do?
Getting Sufficient Protein
Protein is a critical macronutrient but many people don’t pay much attention to it. Nevertheless, you need to get enough protein in your diet to develop muscle mass and to prevent its loss.
Research also indicates that a combination of protein intake and resistance training is effective in helping people to maintain muscle mass and strength (8,9,10). Likewise, research indicates that low protein intake can impact muscle function in older women (11).
This outcome may also vary depending on the specific source of protein and more research is needed to determine the best types of protein for muscle development (12) and precisely how much protein different groups of people need.
Protein intake may also be a particularly significant concern for people with age related muscle loss (13), as protein is often not emphasized within the older population. Indeed, appetite often decreases with age, which can mean that older people may eat significantly less protein than they need (14).
Getting enough protein is critical for preventing muscle loss and also for gaining muscle, regardless of your age
Avoid Dramatic Calorie Restriction
Calorie restriction diets are incredibly common as tools for weight loss. They’re popular because they can lead to fairly rapid changes in weight.
For example, approaches like the Cambridge diet, the Clean 9 diet and many detox diets tend to dramatically decrease calories. As part of that process, you’re often dropping down your protein intake as well.
The end result is that you end up losing fat and lean muscle at the same time. This might look good on the scales but it certainly isn’t desirable for health.
As a result, a very low calorie diet may not be the best option.
For that matter, this type of diet isn’t the most realistic for weight loss anyway. Such approaches tend to be difficult to follow in the long-term. Because of this, many people simply end up losing weight and then regaining it at a later point when they stop the diet.
Dramatically restricting your calories doesn't really help with weight loss and can have negative impacts on body composition
Increase Testosterone Levels
Some theories also suggest that increasing testosterone levels may be an answer for how to reverse age related muscle loss.
Needless to say, this applies to males but it is an interesting area to consider.
In theory, lower testosterone could play a role in the loss of muscle mass. Indeed, testosterone does play a role in muscle growth (17). Some research has also indicated that low free testosterone may be a predictor of muscle loss (18).
The significance of low testosterone and muscle loss is also based on a concept called the triage theory.
This theory suggests that when your body is low on nutrients, it tends to focus on short-term needs, rather than long-term. As a result, your body may not emphasize repair and function, which could also contribute to muscle loss.
Indeed, triage theory has been proposed as a key reason for why some health conditions (like osteoporosis) develop as people age (19).
One way to get around this may be through testosterone supplements or products designed to boost testosterone, such as Nugenix.
However, based on the triage theory, a better place to start would be nutrients, including zinc.
Additionally, many of the symptoms people associate with testosterone deficiency can be caused by other factors (20).
As a result, it’s normally better to focus on other areas first and talk to your doctor if you are worried about testosterone levels.
For males, increasing testosterone may help reduce muscle loss, although focusing on nutrient intake first is normally best
Consider Other Nutrients
Protein tends to be the main nutrient we think of when talking about muscles. However, it’s not the only significant one.
As I mentioned before, testosterone is also relevant and other nutrients are as well. Indeed, our bodies need a wide range of nutrients to function optimally and it’s easy to end up lacking in some areas.
Likewise, a specific type of protein called branched-chain amino acids plays a key role in muscle synthesis (25,26). This type of amino acid and some other relevant nutrients can be found in whey protein, which is partly why whey is so commonly used for building muscle.
Human growth hormone (HGH) has also been associated with muscle development (27). There are products on the market that help to increase HGH production, although there is some debate about their benefits (28).
Nevertheless, the simple answer for increasing HGH and muscle mass overall is to simply get enough nutrients in your diet. This includes various vitamins and minerals, along with amino acids and other natural compounds.
The idea also relates back to the triage theory.
If nothing else, it’s reasonable to assume that your body isn’t going to function as well as possible if you are short in some nutrients.
In most cases, a balanced diet would be enough to make sure you get the nutrients you need. Still, this is something to be aware of, especially if you are trying to follow any diet that has you cutting out some food groups entirely (like the Whole30 diet).
Some research also suggests that supplementation may be necessary.
For example, one study indicated that supplementation with vitamin D, amino acids and whey protein, along with exercise, helped to improve muscle mass in elderly patients (29).
We need many different nutrients for health and getting enough of these is critical for maintaining muscle mass
Design Your Diet and Lifestyle Carefully
As you can see, both diet and lifestyle play a key role in muscle development and maintenance. This is true regardless of your age. Likewise, diet and lifestyle are significant for people trying to lose weight and those that aren’t.
This pattern means that you have to carefully consider both of these areas and also figure out how your body responds.
After all, we are all different.
For people trying to lose weight without muscle loss, one potential solution is a high protein diet.
Personally, I find paleo a little odd, especially as it restricts some food groups that have health benefits (such as most types of dairy, including yogurt). Nevertheless, many people do turn to the paleo diet for weight loss and it does seem to be an effective option.
Likewise, many people rely on protein shakes or high protein snacks as part of a weight loss approach. These methods also offer a potential approach for how to reverse age related muscle loss – provided that you also focused on some resistance or strength exercise as well.
These methods are also relevant for simply fighting age related muscle loss, regardless of whether or not you are also trying to lose weight.
At the same time, it’s critical that you figure out an approach that works for you and is sustainable.
For example, many people try to focus on diets or lifestyles that they simply cannot maintain in the long term. Very low-calorie diets are one example and counting calories is another.
Now, in both cases, there are some people that can follow the diet type effectively.
But, many others would struggle. Instead, it’s often worth turning to a sustainable lifestyle.
The ideal approach would be to focus on a lifestyle that makes sure you have enough nutrients (including protein), without having an excessively high-calorie intake. Likewise, staying active and being involved in strength and/or resistance exercises is critical for reversing age related muscle loss – and for preventing that loss in the first place.
Planning an effective diet and lifestyle involves a range of considerations. Nevertheless, getting it right can have a major impact on health and body composition
Reversing Muscle Loss Effectively
At the end of the day, our bodies are complex systems and individuals tend to vary in many ways. When it comes to reversing muscle loss, this can mean that some people may need more protein than others and the same is true for exercise.
As I mentioned before, you also need to find an approach that you can stick to.
For most people, the answer is to avoid fad diets and methods that are full of hype.
There are also various specific diet and lifestyle approaches that you can emphasize, such as ketosis, low carb and intermittent fasting. All of these can be powerful and there are other options out there too.
Nevertheless, regardless of whether you follow one of those approaches or something else entirely, make sure your protein and nutrient intake is sufficient.
Is body composition something that you’ve considered before? If not, what do you think about it now?
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