The muscle loss usually associated with ageing — also known as sarcopenia — can be delayed by doing regular exercises to retain strength.
“Sarcopenia, or ‘poverty of flesh’, refers to a loss of muscle mass and disruptions to neuronal cooperation with the muscles,” according to Ingo Froboese, a professor working in sports medicine in Cologne, Germany. This means that signals from the nervous system gradually cease to get through to the muscle fibres.
“While muscular atrophy — loss of muscle tissue — can easily be avoided by regular light exercise, the larger muscle fibres, which are affected by sarcopenia, can only be regenerated by strong stimuli, or in other words strenuous exercise,” Froboese says.
Once loss of muscle fibre has reached an advanced stage it is much more difficult to reverse the process. “This is good reason not to neglect exercising muscular strength, quite irrespective of age,” Froboese says.
In practice this means training with light weights and many repetitions for endurance muscles and heavier weights “up to maximum load” with few repetitions for sprint and strength muscles, the professor says.
He points to a broad distinction between muscle types into the small red muscles that are well supplied with blood and used frequently, and the white thick muscles that are used less often and thus need to be put under greater stress, for example through weight training.
“If the muscles are not subjected to this stress, the result may be that everyday tasks, like for example lifting heavy objects, become increasingly difficult. And the danger of a fall also increases,” Froboese says.
Some experts believe that at least 80 per cent of people older than 40 exhibit initial symptoms of sarcopenia.