Healthy Aging: Protein and Physical Activity Can Help

  • Article
  • 3 min read October 3, 2017

“Growing old is not for sissies,” actress Bette Davis famously said, and she was right.

But there are ways to foster healthy aging to improve vitality later in life. One serious age-related condition is sarcopenia, the progressive, age-related loss of muscle mass and function estimated to affect up to 33 percent of people 50 years and older, with higher prevalence in long-term and acute care settings. The good news is researchers are exploring ways to slow this decline and give people a better quality of life. New research discussed below shows eating adequate protein, including protein from animal sources such as dairy foods, is associated with preserving muscle mass and functional performance, especially when combined with higher levels of physical activity.

A longitudinal study examined the independent effects of eating higher vs. lower amounts of animal protein (e.g., meat, poultry, fish and dairy) or plant protein (e.g., legumes, nuts, seeds and soy) on changes in muscle mass and ability to perform daily tasks, as well as the combined effect of protein consumption and physical activity on these measures. Changes in muscle mass were measured in participants age 40 and older and, for up to 16 years, changes in functional status were measured in those age 50 and older. The findings were as follows:

Percent skeletal muscle mass:

  • Eating more vs. less protein from both animal and plant sources was associated with a higher percentage of skeletal muscle mass, especially in women.
  • Both men and women who ate more animal protein foods (6-7 ounce-equivalent servings) had a higher percentage of skeletal muscle mass, regardless of physical activity.
  • In contrast, eating more (1 cup or more per day) vs. less (less than 1 cup per day) plant protein foods was associated with a higher percentage of muscle mass only among more active individuals (in the top three quintiles for amount of weekly moderate to vigorous activity).
  • Women with higher red meat, poultry, fish, and dairy intakes, even when they were less active, had a higher percentage of skeletal muscle mass than those who ate fewer servings of those foods.

Risk of experiencing a decline in the ability to perform daily tasks (e.g., heavy housework, walking half a mile, going up and down stairs, lifting or carrying more than 10 pounds):

  • Active adults were less likely to develop a decline in physical ability over time. When active individuals ate more protein foods of any type, they were less likely to have limitations completing daily tasks.
  • Eating more animal protein foods was associated with lower risk of declining physical ability, regardless of activity level.
  • In less active adults, eating more plant protein foods did not reduce the risk of physical decline.

So, how can health and wellness professionals help adults eat enough protein and incorporate resistance exercise to their daily routines? Results of a recent qualitative study among older adults enrolled in a dairy protein/exercise trial give us some clues:

  • Make recommendations for eating protein-rich foods that stay as close as possible to the way a person currently eats.
  • Teach clients the health benefits of eating a higher protein diet, including foods with high-quality protein.
  • Recommend high-quality protein foods that are convenient to eat and taste great.
  • Suggest that people exercise as a group for social interaction and motivation.
  • Provide customized exercise support for immobilized seniors and those without prior exercise experience.

While lifestyle changes will not completely stop the decline in muscle and function that occurs with age, eating sufficient protein from a wide range of foods and enjoying a physically active lifestyle can help aging adults maintain muscle and physical function for longer.