Protein plus exercise equals less muscle loss with aging

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By Theresa Howard

Most Americans get plenty of protein. In fact, their problem isn’t too little protein but too much of the calories and saturated fat that accompany such popular protein sources as cheeseburgers or fried chicken. But people over age 50 might need to pay attention to getting adequate protein, not just at dinner time but throughout the day.

Researchers at Tufts University are finding that a steady intake of protein from healthy sources, combined with aerobic activity and weight-training exercises, can help counter the loss of muscle mass often associated with aging. The director of Tufts’ HNRCA Nutritional Epidemiology Program estimates that twenty percent of people between the ages of 51 and 70 have an inadequate protein intake.

Research shows to get the most out of exercise, participants also had to be consuming enough protein. In fact, people who did muscle-strengthening exercises without protein intake of at least 70 grams daily actually had lower muscle mass.

The gradual loss of lean muscle mass that can occur with aging is called sarcopenia. Skeletal muscles reach peak mass by the third decade of life and with each subsequent decade muscle fibers decrease in size and number. This process speeds up in the later years of life. By age 80, up to thirty percent of muscle bulk may be lost. Sarcopenia affects fifteen percent of people older than age 65 and fifty percent of people older than age 80.

How much protein do you need? It depends on your body weight. For example, a 125-pound woman would need 46 grams of protein per day, while a 175-pound man would need 64 grams per day.

You may also want to spread your protein consumption through the day, rather than concentrating it at dinner time. Changing body chemistry means older adults benefit from a more even distribution of protein intake. Some experts recommend that seniors consume 25 grams of high-quality protein with each meal to maximize the body’s synthesis of muscle protein. That’s a lot more protein than you’ll get from a typical breakfast of cereal and juice, which delivers only about eight grams. Consider adding an egg, low-fat cottage cheese, whole-wheat toast, meatless breakfast sausage or even fish to your breakfast to make sure your body has plenty of protein to start the day.

Educational programs of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability or national origin.