A Dynamic Duo for Healthy Aging Protein and Exercise

  • Article
  • May 24, 2018

When it comes to healthy aging, maintaining muscle strength is important.

Recent research helps us understand how protein and physical activity work together to help support muscle mass and strength throughout life.

Although adults typically lose muscle as they age, eating foods with high-quality protein (i.e., containing all essential amino acids), including meat, eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese, and getting regular exercise, particularly resistance exercise, can support muscle maintenance for adults of any age.

It is estimated that around age 40, muscle mass decreases by about 3-8 percent per decade, although this varies greatly between individuals. This may occur because with aging, muscle seems less able to respond to stimuli from eating protein and exercising. This decline of skeletal muscle tissue and function or strength with age is called sarcopenia, which is linked with increased risk of falls and can contribute to poor health. To help maintain muscle mass, older adults may need to eat a higher amount of protein, including from high-quality protein sources, and exercise regularly.

A recent meta-analysis of 10 randomized, controlled trials found that pairing milk protein supplementation from whey, casein or dairy foods with resistance training increased fat-free mass in adults 60 to 80 years old, without influencing body fat or weight. The authors concluded that eating a balanced diet with adequate protein along with exercise may help slow age-related progressive muscle loss.

Here are some tips for clients and patients to support muscle maintenance:

  • Eat enough protein: The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein (0.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight) may not be adequate to maintain muscle and bone in older adults. Experts recommend protein consumption ranging from 1.0 – 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram body weight per day to help maintain muscle with aging. That means a person who weighs 150 pounds (or 68 kilograms) should aim for between 68 and 102 grams of protein per day. Despite current misperceptions, research indicates that eating protein above the RDA, but within the Institute of Medicine Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) of 10-35% of daily calories from protein, is not harmful to bone health and may in fact be helpful.
  • Choose high-quality protein foods: Many foods contain protein, but the amount and quality vary based on their amino acid composition and digestibility. High-quality protein, such as found in milk, yogurt and cheese, contains all nine essential amino acids that can’t be made by the body on its own. Whey protein powder may be a good choice for older adults. It is higher in the amino acid leucine (~2.5 g leucine per 20 g whey protein), which stimulates muscle growth. It has a modest number of calories (~100 kcal per 28 gram scoop) and can be easily added to smoothies, oatmeal or soups.
  • Exercise: The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association recommend that older adults incorporate both moderate-intensity aerobic training and strength training into their routines.

It’s never too late to change eating and exercise habits; however, remember to consult your physician before beginning an exercise program or diet. The dynamic duo of a healthy eating pattern with adequate protein and exercise helps adults maintain muscle mass and strength, which can help them age healthfully. Learn more about the benefits of high-quality protein and whey protein along with delicious meal and snack ideas.