Muscle mass loss over 40: true or false?
There’s a popular notion in sports nutrition that muscle simply falls off our bodies as we age and turns to wobbly fat, starting as early as our 30s if you believe some sources and with the real tipping point happening beyond 40 years old. From here it is - apparently - an inevitable downhill fast-track to wizened, zimmerframe-assisted shuffling. Only huge protein intake and a punishing training regime can ward off the dreaded muscle mass loss over 40, according to many sources.
Sounds pretty scary, right?
Hell, even the medical name for all this sounds sinister. It’s called sarcopenia and it’s the ‘degenerative loss of skeletal muscle mass, quality and strength associated with ageing’. Ouch.
But here’s the funny thing.
The main focus of the studies and media coverage on this subject zeroes in on 40 as the age when the wheels start really coming off.
Conveniently this is also the age when mid-life crises are most likely to strike, and if you, let's say, were a protein company looking to expand sales from your core market of 25-35 year-old gym goers into 35-50 year olds, stoking this fear would be a great way to do it.
Muscle mass loss with age - who’s being studied?
It's the average population, and with our increasingly sedentary and junk-food filled lives among Western societies, a loss of muscle mass with ageing among this group is guaranteed.
Mountain runners: not the core study group in muscle mass loss research funnily enough
People who have spent their life on the sofa munching turkey twizzlers and cake and whose idea of exercise involves lifting seven pints every Friday are not going to be putting on muscle. Ever. They are going to be running to fat from the get go, and by 40 will be well into the zone where further blimping out requires little more than looking at a pie shop.
We don’t need science to tell us muscle wastage as we age is a thing.
For athletes however, muscle mass loss with age is basically not a thing at all
The reason is simple: when you stress a muscle, you break it down and, with a good diet and recovery protocol, it will then rebuild stronger again. This is basic human biology and is as true at 75 as it is at 25.
The image below makes this point beautifully. Keep doing exercise = keep growing muscle.
Well what do you know: folks who keep exercising keep muscle mass easily. Pow! Take that sarcopenia
One of the worst side effects of the ‘muscle mass loss over 40’ hype, is that people believe it. So much so, it is accepted wisdom.
This has a powerful placebo effect which manifests as people believe it so much it actually happens even more. They reduce their training or stop altogether because they believe staving off sarcopenia is impossible.
Beat muscle mass loss
The stories we believe in our minds have the most powerful effects on our lives.
As Henry Ford said: "whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right"
Which is why the right story matters so much here, and the right story is this:
'Muscle mass loss over 40 is reserved for lazy buggers with shoddy diets. It is optional and wholly avoidable with nothing more than good diet and regular exercise. We all have the ability to get stronger as we get older and the only performance limits that exist are the ones in our minds'.
The only exception here is elite top level athletes. If you've taken your body and performance to its absolute finite performance limit in your 20s and 30s then this limit will drop off slightly with age.
There are no 60 year-olds running two hour marathons. Yet. Maybe with the right mental story however, future generations can prove this one wrong too.
So eat awesome, train like a demon, and don't neglect strength work - regular doses of quality efforts here focusing on bodyweight exercises like pullups, pressups and planks, as well as core weight exercises like squats, deadlifts, and bench pressing all add essential strength to your endurance makeup. As this post explains, a lack of functional strength is a key factor in athletes hitting the wall, while those with more strength here stay faster, longer.
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