Muscle loss: the underestimated risk

How well a patient gets back on his feet after a serious operation or injury depends to a large extent on his physical fitness and muscle reserves. Athletic seniors can usually cope better with major surgery or extensive therapies such as chemotherapy than younger, untrained patients. People who are confined to bed for a week lose 20 to 25 percent of their muscle mass. And it takes at least six weeks for this to build up again with regular training. Doctors also refer to a loss of muscle mass and strength as sarcopenia. Recently, this has become a recognized disease.

Muscle mass decreases with age

From the age of 30. In the course of their lives, people lose up to one percent of their muscle mass per year. Muscles are gradually converted into fat. Without exercise, a person will lose weight until the age of 80. In the second year of life, a person loses up to 40 percent of his or her muscle mass. At 100, muscle mass has then reduced by 70 percent. And that has consequences for the entire organism: less muscle mass means that metabolism and energy consumption are shut down. This results in a reduced appetite and a reduced food intake. As a result, sufferers become even weaker, they move less – and muscle mass declines even further. The risk of falls and bone fractures increases.

Muscle loss can be stopped

The good news is that muscle loss can be halted and even reversed through regular exercise – regardless of age. However, a walk is not enough. The muscles must be addressed by pulling, pushing or lifting. The musculature must therefore be trained in a targeted manner so that it does not reduce further. Those affected should push themselves to their limits. Experts assume that 140 to 150 minutes of training per week are necessary to build up strength – corresponding to five times 30 minutes of training.

Exercise reduces the risk of death

Statistics prove: Regular physical activity reduces the risk of death by 65 percent. But before exercising, older people should always have a thorough checkup to rule out any risks and to make the individually tailored training as effective as possible. Sports physicians determine the muscle percentage of the body by simple measurements. Even the force of a handshake can provide information about overall body strength. A grip strength meter (dynamometer) is also used for this purpose. With a simple strength test, the doctor can check how long it takes the patient to stand up from a chair five times. If it takes more than ten seconds, training is indicated. A tape measure can also provide information: If an adult’s lower leg has a circumference of less than 31 centimeters, this can be a sign of sarcopenia.

Simple exercises for everyday life

If the hurdle of going to the gym is too high for the patient, physicians advise incorporating workouts into everyday life. It helps to link daily rituals, such as watching TV, with exercises. These must be tailored to the individual’s needs.

Sample exercises for those over 60:

  • standing on tiptoes
  • taking two stairs at a time
  • jumping over objects (stone, leaf) while walking
  • Balance exercises

Sample exercises for those over 70:

  • Tandem stance (one foot in front of the other)
  • Tandem gait
  • Squats
  • One-leg stand

(Source: Network Ageing Research Heidelberg)

Protein-rich food supports muscle development

In addition to regular training, diet plays an important role: protein-rich foods support muscle development. According to experts, older people need about 25 percent more protein than younger people to maintain bone structure and musculature. 1 to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight should be consumed daily. It is optimal to distribute the protein intake over the three main meals, because a maximum of 30 grams of protein per meal can be efficiently utilized by the body for so-called muscle protein synthesis.

Examples of how much protein is in different foods:

  • 1 egg: 8 grams of protein
  • 1 cup of yogurt: 4 grams
  • 1 slice of Gouda: 9 grams
  • 1 pork cutlet: 33 grams

However, not only the quantity, but also the quality of the protein plays an important role. Especially good are whey proteins, which are an important component of milk. These proteins have a high leucine content. The essential amino acid is important for muscle building. Leucine is also found, for example, in beef, poultry, salmon, peas or walnuts.

Vitamin D important for muscle metabolism

Vitamin D also plays an important role in muscle metabolism. To produce this, the body needs sunlight. Around 60 percent of Germans suffer from vitamin D deficiency in the fall and winter months. In addition, in older people the biosynthesis of the vitamin in the skin is delayed. Experts therefore recommend taking at least 800 IU (international units) of vitamin D per day.

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