You may have heard the saying “age is just a number.” I’m quite sure that these words are actually etched into my soul. They stand in the face of a world that often says, “You’re too old for that.” On the contrary, I believe that age does not dictate what you are capable of and no matter how old you are, you can start today. This defiance of ageism has been sewn into the fabric of my existence by the threads of all the older adults that I have worked with. They have shown me how capable they are when we do not shackle them with underestimations but instead support them with educated guidance and exercise that is safe, appropriately scaled for their abilities, and challenging. They have shown me the courage to start, the will to grow stronger, and the power to take back their lives.
So, I shout from the mountain top that age is just a number. But you know what? That is not the whole story because age does carry with it some important considerations. As most of us know, as we get older, both the quality and density of our bones decline, often leading to osteopenia, osteoporosis and, in some cases, fragility fractures. This weakening of our bones occurs quite rapidly in women with the hormonal changes of menopause, but can also occur in men. I think, in part due to marketing strategies from dairy companies, there tends to be some awareness regarding the loss of bone health in older adults, but there is another loss that often occurs as we get older – a loss that is arguably more significant.
What I’m referring to is sarcopenia, which is the age-associated loss of muscle tissue and function, that occurs as we grow older. Studies suggest that sarcopenia begins as early as the 4th decade of life and progresses steadily, with up to HALF of our muscle mass typically being lost by the time we reach our 80th birthday. Just as the loss of bone health can vary between older adults, so too can the loss of muscle. There are a lot of different things can contribute to the progression of sarcopenia. Some of these include poor nutrition (particularly poor protein intake), the presence of chronic illness, chronic inflammation, insulin resistance, hormonal factors, inactivity and sedentary lifestyle.
So why do we care if we lose muscle as we get older? Well, this loss of muscle is a major factor in the typical decline in older adults’ functional abilities. The weaker we become, the less we can do – including all the activities that are necessary for independent living. We also know that sarcopenia results in a higher likelihood of falls, disability, hospitalization, and death. Trust me, it matters – both in lifespan and, arguably more importantly, quality of life.
Fortunately, we can all raise arms in the fight against age-related loss of bone health, muscle mass and strength. The call to action is a call to get active and stay active, while eating well. The best activity is one that you enjoy and will continue to do. That being said, the best exercise for improving strength and bone health in older adults is strength training – preferably under the guidance of a professional such as a physiotherapist who is experienced in working with this age group.
Teresa Waser is a physiotherapist and owner of RX Physiotherapy, in Leduc, AB. She has a Master of Science in Physical Therapy from the University of Alberta, in addition to several years of continuing education and experience treating patients of all ages. Outside of the clinic, she coaches running and CrossFit, including a program at CrossFit Leduc known as “Longevity”, which is specifically designed for adults over 50.