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Building muscle as we age

Just how futile are our attempts to keep trim, taut and terrific as we get older? After all, our muscles just waste away and we get inexorably fatter, don’t we?

Certainly, on average, and without intervention, muscle declines as we age. But by how much? And can we prevent or slow muscle loss or even turn it around?

While Bodyscan clients do not represent a random sample of the UK population, our dataset is big and varied enough to suggest that muscle mass does not begin to diminish as early as many say. It also contradicts the popular view that the rate of decline is very steep.

Bodyscan’s previous data, for 1400 men and 850 women, showed average lean mass index (lean mass divided by height-squared) to be almost unchanged up until age 50, and data points as likely to be above the median line as below it up until age 55.

It’s only when data beyond age 55 is included that there is a noticeable decreasing trend. (Please note the red line on each graph is the median value, not the line of best fit or a trend line.)

Bodyscan has recently segmented its latest dataset of 2700 men and 1300 women into four age categories and the results point to the same conclusion. Below are the average (50th percentile) and top quartile (75th percentile) lean mass indices for both sexes.

For a man 1.78m (5’10”) tall, the difference in lean mass between an LMI of 19.2 and 18.9 is exactly one kilogram. The women show no difference in LMI between the youngest and oldest age groups. Not what you’d call a cliff edge.

If you think Bodyscan’s client base is super-fit (it’s not), then for a random population sample, take a quick look at the US NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) data below. Its charts show that average LMI (the middle line on both charts) peaks for white men and women as late as 50, and points to about the same LMI at age 70 as at age 20.

As for actively building muscle and defying increasing age and falling testosterone, Bodyscan client Mitchell, aged 62, is proof enough that it is perfectly achievable. Mitchell’s LMI is 21.9, which is above the 80th percentile (what we at Bodyscan call “amateur bodybuilder muscle”) for men less than half his age. His fat mass index is very good too, at just 4.37.

Mitchell trains under James Blanchard, who applies the same training rules to older clients as younger ones, though with more alertness to pain, injury and recovery time. “Age is just one factor, together with overall health, fitness and experience,” he says. “Young and old alike need to listen to their bodies. Mitchell doesn’t train through pain or do anything stupid, that is key in allowing him to train and perform exactly like a younger guy would.”

Muscle mass and strength come through four sessions a week of the big, powerlifting moves, such as bench press, squat and deadlift. The only diet parameters were 2g protein per kilo of body weight and overall calories, which were set at James’s own formula of 12 x bodyweight in pounds, varied by how active the client is.

“This amount of protein was more than sufficient enough to maintain muscle mass and helped to keep Mitchell satiated. Carbohydrate and fat were set however he liked according to his preference.” James believes that the quantity or ratio of carbs and fat “makes no difference over the long term as long as the total calorie intake is respected.”

While it is easy to think that 62-year-old Mitchell’s achievement of high muscle mass is an exception to the rule, another look at Bodyscan’s data shows that it’s not.  Take a look at the charts plotting FMI vs LMI for Bodyscan’s entire dataset.

Across both sexes and all ages, as people get fatter and heavier, they always develop more muscle mass to be able to carry the extra weight. They are effectively doing a high-weight workout with every step they take. Everyone with a high fat mass index has a high lean mass index. We’re not suggesting that you get fat to build muscle but it’s proof enough that weights-based resistance training – at any age and for both sexes – will maintain and build muscle mass.

Finally, it should also be stressed that resistance training is perhaps the best strategy for increasing bone density, something that naturally declines in later years. The decline is particularly steep (and therefore the benefit of weights greater) for women after menopause.

Mitchell’s bone density (in the light blue area) is 112% of average for his age and well above the average (the line that separates the two blue areas) for a man at peak bone density (about age 35).