It has long been understood that physical activity can help mitigate the destructive effects of aging on our muscles. But many studies which drew broad conclusions about the nature of the natural aging process used sedentary subjects for their research. New research, which takes disuse out of the picture, shows that lifelong physical activity may be even more effective at protecting muscles from aging, than exercising as a response to muscle loss.
Physical Activity Shown to Help Prevent Loss of Muscle Mass
Recent research suggests that disuse, rather than age, has more to do with losing our muscle mass. By using MRI’s, fitness, and strength testing, Dr. Vonda Wright (UPMC Centre for Sports Medicine) and colleagues compared muscle size and strength across 40 recreational masters athletes aged 40-81. The results were surprising: there was no measurable decline in strength or mass of the participant’s muscles. In fact, the MRIs showed almost no differences in the muscles of a 70-year-old triathlete when compared to those of a 40-year-old triathlete. The implication is that continual training of muscles helps defend against a decline in muscles mass previously thought to be related exclusively to age.
Staying Active Prevents Loss of Muscular Motor Units Over Time
Beyond the more commonly understood loss of general muscle mass, researchers have also shown that physical activity helps protect our bodies from the loss of motor units, groups of muscle fibres that are controlled by an individual motor neuron in the spine. In this research, 60-year-old runners had almost the same number of motor units as their 20-year-old counterparts, while inactive 60-year-olds possessed 35% fewer motor units, according to a study by Dr. Charles Rice and a team of researchers from the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging at the University of Western Ontario. A follow-up study showed that the number of motor units in a runner’s arms did continue to decline, however, showing the need for a comprehensive activity program that exercises all muscles, as those not specifically targeted will continue to flag with age.
Nevertheless, the two studies taken together help support what we all know already – getting active now, and staying active is one of the best things we can do to fight the aging process.
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