One thing every senior has in common with a bodybuilder

Male biceps lifting weights image

by Deanna Mak, Dietitian and Author of Bringing Nutrition To Life

At the face of it they are worlds apart. Bodybuilders are pumped up on the adrenalin of lifting heavy weights and fuelling up on protein, while seniors may be seeking active independent lifestyles, yet at a more recreational pace. However, what many seniors may not realise is that there is a thing or two they could learn from your typical body builder. 

While it is well understood among seniors that bone density tends to decline as we age, depleting muscle mass is less discussed. We all become prone to a decline in muscle mass from about the age of 30, and with increased years, muscle loss can occur at a rate of 1-2% per year for people aged 50 years and over.1

For bodybuilders, maintaining muscle mass may be purely aesthetic, yet as we age, maintaining muscle plays an integral role to our overall health. Without adequate muscle mass, we become more susceptible to frailty and falls, which can significantly impact our ability to maintain the independent lifestyle that many people want to enjoy in later years.

So what can seniors learn from bodybuilders? What might be surprising, is that to achieve muscle maintenance, the protein requirements of people aged 65 years and over, is not too unlike that of a bodybuilder, both in terms of the increased requirements per kilogram of body weight, as well as the pattern and frequency required each day.

By the age of 65, protein requirements per kilogram are typically higher than younger adults by about 25%.2 The increased protein intake is essential to support the various physiological changes in older age, particularly the management of sarcopaenia and maintenance of muscle mass.3 Protein requirements may be further elevated during times of illness.

The frequency and timing of protein intake is also important. Unlike carbohydrate and fat, protein cannot be stored by the body4 and therefore it is important that protein is consumed in adequate amounts throughout the entire day. A regular protein intake can help delay and manage sarcopaenia by promoting muscle synthesis and preventing its breakdown. Recent studies have suggested that 25g of protein (roughly equivalent to a 100g portion of steak) is required at each meal to trigger muscle synthesis.5

Consuming protein found naturally in whole foods is the best choice as it comes as part of a nutrient bundle. While protein supplements also provide a valuable source of protein, they only are recommended when adequate protein cannot be achieved through the diet alone. 

Food Source  Amount of protein  Other beneficial nutrients 
Beef, cooked  31.1g per 100g  Iron, B vitamins 
Chicken, cooked  29.8g per 100g  Iron, B vitamins  
Eggs  12.7g per 2 eggs  B vitamins, selenium, iodine, Omega-3 fatty acids 
Fish  31.3g per 120g fillet  Omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iodine 
Milk  9.5g per 250ml glass Calcium, vitamin A, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, Vitamin D (fortified varieties) 
Cheddar cheese  11.6g per 40g slice  Calcium, phosphorus, magnesium 
Lentils, cooked  6.8g per 100g cooked  Dietary fibre, folate, iron 
Almonds  6.4g per 30g  Mono-unstaturated fats, vitamin E 

In addition to adequate nutrition, regular strength training exercises are recommended to facilitate muscle maintenance. Strength training at least twice a week can help maximise muscle strength and maintenance.(6) In addition to traditional strength exercises such as weight training, activities such as gardening, digging and lifting can also support muscle maintenance.   

Key nutrition and lifestyle tips to stay strong and active in senior years:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight. A BMI of 22-27kg/m2 is recommended for people aged 65 and over, and is associated with improved long-term health outcomes.
  • The meaning of a ‘healthy, balanced diet’ differs to that of a younger adult. Popular recommendations such as calorie restricted diets for weight management in younger adulthood are typically not advised for older adults and can increase the risk of muscle loss. Calorie restricted diets should only be conducted under close supervision of a qualified health professional.
  • Consume a rich source of protein at each meal across the day. Protein as part of a nutrient bundle found naturally in wholefoods is the best choice. 
  • Include strength training at least twice a week to enhance muscle strength and maintenance. A qualified exercise physiologist can prescribe a program that is suited to individual needs. 

References:

1. Sehl ME, Yates FE Kinetics of Human Aging: rates of senescence between ages 30 and 70 years in healthy people. Journal of Gerontology; Biological Sciences 2001;56: B198-B208.
2. Campbell WW et al The recommended daily allowance for protein may not be adequate for older people to maintain skeletal muscle Journal Gerontology; Biological & Medical Sciences 2001;56 M373-M380
3. Ministry of Health, Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand, National Health and Medical Research Council, Department of Health and Ageing 2006
Waterflow JC. The assessment of protein nutrition and metabolism in the whole animal, with special reference to man. In: Munro HN, ed. Mammalian protein metabolism, Vol III. New York: Academic Press 1969. Pp347-8.
4. Paddon Jones D et al Dietary Protein Recommendations and the Prevention of Sarcopaenia Current Opinion Clinical Nutrition Metabolic Care 2009;12:86-90
5. Australian Government, Choose Health: Be Active: A Physical Activity Guide for Older Australians 2008 Australian Government, Department of Health and Ageing and Sports Medicine Australia

Further nutrition tips can be found in Deanna’s book, Bringing Nutrition To Life. Peer reviewed by Associate Professor Karen Walton, Bringing Nutrition To Life provides practical evidence-based nutritional guidance to help healthy older individuals manage the physiological changes associated with ageing. The book also includes over 100 recipes personally developed by Deanna. More details can be found at: www.australisnutrition.co