Growing old sucks. Heart disease, weight gain, diabetes, memory loss, joint pain – all sorts of lousy things happen as the years go by. I went to the track the other day and ran some sprints. I was never fast, but at age 18 I could run 200 meters in 26 seconds. Thirty years later, getting under 40 seconds takes a monumental effort. Small children taunt me as they ease on past. I like to think I am in decent shape and have a fairly high level of fitness, but still, my body declines. The reason for this is an inevitable, insidious process known as sarcopenia.
In the Greek language, sarcopenia means “poverty of flesh.” More accurately, it explains the gradually increasing loss of muscle mass we experience as we age. Yes, even a relative youngster of twenty-five will begin losing muscle mass, though not too much. The problem really begins to approach danger levels as we reach the “golden years,” where our muscles deteriorate at an alarming rate.
If a photo is taken of the cross-section of two men's thighs, one of a twenty-five year old, and another of a sixty-five year old, the difference is stunning. The young man's thigh is a dark, solid mass of muscle, whereas the older man's is full of fatty veins that run through the muscle like streets through a town. The muscle has deteriorated and replaced by fatty tissue. By the age of seventy-five, an additional ten percent of the muscle will be lost and replaced by fat.
By that time, accidental falls are more likely to occur. Muscle mass is critical for the rehabilitation of broken bones. Once debilitating injuries happen, and the affected area is disabled, atrophy sets in quickly and the muscular decay can be disastrous. In short, this problem does not go away until its victim is six feet under.
This is the bad news. Oh, one more thing: the process is irreversible. Sorry to pile on. However, there are many weapons that can be used to slow down the effects of sarcopenia, and it can make the difference between someone spending their senior years in good health or immobilized in abject frailty.
First and foremost, eat right. Do not accelerate the process by habitually feeding the body with food that promotes the storage of fat. Low sugar, high protein, whole grains, ample vegetables and good fat is a helpful mantra to consider whenever it is time to eat.
Second, get out and exercise. Do aerobic activities for the heart and some form of weight training for the muscles. Don't like weights or treadmills, how about Zumba, hiking, tennis or soccer? There are hundreds of ways to stay in shape and build muscle. Find activities that are enjoyable, stick to them and make them part of a lifetime plan. Of course, a sedentary person should consult their physician before beginning an exercise progra