How older men can maintain and increase strength

by Ruth Nichol / 15 February, 2018
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New research has pinpointed how older men can maintain and even increase their strength.

Toast with peanut butter (instead of jam) for breakfast; a meat sandwich followed by yogurt for lunch; 200g of chicken breast with potatoes and vegetables for dinner.

It‘s not quite full-on paleo, but Kiwi researchers have found that eating twice as much high-quality protein than recommended by international guidelines – and eating it at every meal, rather than just at dinner – can help older men maintain muscle size and strength.

And although the study involved only men aged 70 or older, lead scientist Cameron Mitchell, a research fellow at the Liggins Institute in Auckland, says it’s likely that eating more meat, fish, dairy and eggs will help older women maintain muscle mass, too.

“Testing it with women would be the next logical step,” he says. “There’s no reason to think we would find anything different, but we do know that after menopause, women have a few differences in protein metabolism than men, so that would be interesting to investigate.”

Everyone starts to lose muscle mass and strength from about the age of 50, but losing too much – what’s known as sarcopenia – increases the risk of falls and fractures. “You don’t have the strength or speed to stop yourself falling over, and it can get to a point where you can no longer do basic tasks such as carrying groceries up the stairs or getting out of bed to go to the toilet.”

Mitchell says that as many as 35% of those aged 75 or older have lost so much muscle function it affects their daily life. But it doesn’t have to be that way. He says upping your protein intake at every meal, combined with resistance exercise at least twice a week, can not only slow the rate of muscle loss but also help you regain some of your lost muscle mass.

“You can build muscle mass. It becomes harder to do as you age, but it’s not impossible, and you can definitely build strength rather than muscle.”

Several previous studies have found that older adults who eat the most protein have the strongest and largest muscles and lose the least muscle over time. But what makes the Liggins Institute study – published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition – different is not just that it was a randomised controlled trial but it also involved real food rather than protein supplements.

The 30 participants had all their meals and snacks delivered to their homes for 10 weeks. Half the men had a diet that contained the amount of protein recommended by the World Health Organisation – 0.8g of protein for every kilogram of body weight a day. That’s slightly lower than the 1.07g/kg a day recommended by New Zealand health authorities. The other men had a diet that contained twice the WHO-recommended amount of protein – 1.6g of protein per kilogram of body weight a day.

For men weighing 75kg, that meant they were eating either 60g of protein a day – the amount contained in 200g of chicken – or 120g of protein a day. It came from a variety of sources including meat, fish, dairy food and eggs.

Ten weeks later, the men in the first group had lost muscle size and strength, while those who ate more protein had maintained muscle size and strength and increased their leg power.

But it’s not enough to simply swap tea and toast for a protein-rich breakfast and start eating more steak. Regular exercise is also essential, particularly resistance exercise. Whereas for younger people this generally involves using weights, Mitchell says simple body-weight exercises such as rising from a chair then sitting down again can help older people maintain strength in their lower body – vital for things such as walking up stairs and being able to balance.

In fact, sets of chair rises are an excellent way of building and maintaining lower body strength.

“If you can only get up once and that’s a struggle, then get up once and take a rest and do it again. But if you can do 15 to 20 of them before it gets hard, then you could start adding weights. And if you’re getting past chair-raising and you haven’t exercised much before, you may want to get a personal trainer to give you a basic programme.”

This article was first published in the January 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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