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Middle-age muscle loss can be reversible for some

Published August 12. 2017 09:00AM

After boasting a bit in the last column about my body fat percentage not increasing much since my heydays, I'll expound more upon the matter since it directly relates to today's topic. The medical encyclopedia at the U.S. National Library of Health's website, MedlinePlus, states that your percentage of body fat typically "goes up steadily" from the fourth decade on, so much so that "older people may have almost one third more fat compared to when they were younger."

While I've probably added a bit, it's nowhere near that estimate. In fact, if you saw me lifting weights without a shirt on, you might even think that I've lost some since my 30s.

Because as we age, the positioning of our body fat moves.

The layer of fat under the skin decreases, which is what allows me to look even more defined than 25 years ago in the areas where subcutaneous fat really thins - the chest, forearms, upper abdomen, calves, and quadriceps. At the same time, however, fat tissue accumulates around the internal organs in the lower abdomen.

So while I still have sawtooth obliques and six-pack abs above my belly button, I've added what looks like a single 12-ounce can on its side beneath it.

But there's something else you'd think if you saw me lifting weights: that I'm noticeably less muscular - especially in the legs - than just two or three years ago.

This loss of muscle is also age-related. It is called sarcopenia and is accompanied by a reduction in strength.

For me, less strength and muscle in the legs means less pedaling power on the bike. Less pedaling power means less speed.

Unlike the age-related increase and movement of body fat, however, you can reverse the muscle loss from sarcopenia to some degree.

And while you may not care a bit about how much power you can produce pedaling a bicycle, you should care a bunch about regaining lost muscle. Not necessarily because you want to win your age group in the local 5k road race, lift more than your buddy in the weight room, or simply survive a Spartan Race.

But because keeping as much muscle as possible as you age allows you to keep doing the things you want - and need! - to do to get the most out of day-to-day living. It's not an athletic but a quality-of-life issue.

Improving your quality of life: that's why on occasion this column chronicles one of my personal health and fitness experiments after it has enhanced mine.

Today is not one of those times.

Today it's better for you to read about the planning stages of an experiment to help you create your own. My experiment will begin in about a month, and it could allow me to regain some of the muscle mass that I've lost in my legs over the last few years. If not, the workouts should at least put any additional muscle loss on hold for a while.

What needs to be made clear again is the nature of my muscle loss. I have not been neglecting my body.

During my summer vacation, I've been cycling 12 to 14 hours a week, lifting weights for another two, and stretching more than ever before, some weeks more than three hours.

But I'm 56, you see, and sarcopenia, age-related muscle loss which often begins in your early 40s, generally accelerates noticeably by your mid-50s.

During my 30s and 40s, ironically, I intentionally reduced my muscle mass. I restricted my carbohydrate intake during most meals (I had cut out all but an essential amount of dietary fat years before that) and the amount of weight I used in the weight room while dramatically increasing the amount of reps.

It worked. I lost a few pounds of muscle and climbed longer and steeper hills on my bicycle much better.

Now it's that lack of muscle mass that's hampering me a bit when I climb and descend - but especially when I need to power the pedals on rolling terrain and flatlands. So how am I'm going to remedy that?

Reverse the changes I made during my 30s and 40s, for starters.

Regardless of age, muscles won't grow unless your body is provided excess energy in the form of carbohydrates. At 56, this will be an especially delicate balancing act, because if the muscles are not sufficiently stimulated to force growth, those extra carbs will simply be stored as fat.

The intensity of my weightlifting workouts for my legs has to increase to the degree where it actually creates micro tears in the muscle fibers. Provide the body with ample energy immediately after this occurs, and it will do more than just repair the tears.

It will add extra muscle fibers atop of the torn ones to keep the tearing from happening again. Regardless of age, that's how muscles get progressively larger. It's a breakdown, buildup process happening over an over again.

After age 40 or so, though, sarcopenia can stymie the process.

Read next week's article for the ways you can negate loss of muscle in middle age.

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