Exercise doesn’t wear out muscles, on the contrary (and how to age well)

  • The process of muscle tone loss is age-related, natural, and starts as early as around age 30.
  • Regular physical activity and proper nutrition are essential to maintain muscle function.
  • High-speed weight training is particularly effective in counteracting muscle aging and maintaining responsiveness and strength.


That the ability to endure exertion and physical performance decline with age is something everyone knows. One thing that is less well known is that muscle tissue begins to age as early as around age 30. Maybe you happened to experience this when suddenly one day getting up from the couch did not require the usual effort.You crossed the line between youth during which every effort seemed more or less manageable and adulthood, when even tying your shoes began to involve some puffing.

The process of decreasing muscle mass is (unfortunately) natural. Studies confirm that just after the age of 30 you start to lose between 3 and 8 percent of your muscles each decade, and the percentage increases as the years increase, soaring after 60.

What to do? Surrender to decline? Absolutely not. But first, let’s try to understand how muscles work because then you will better understand how much and why it is essential to keep them efficient at all times.

How muscles work

Muscles are among the tissues in our body that change the most. In truth, we change them all the time, growing them, blocking their functional weakening, healing their “wounds” caused by training, especially with protein intake.

We have 2 types:

  • Smooth or white muscles that line internal organs excluding the heart and regulate their activity independently of our will (and in fact are also called “involuntary”)
  • Skeletal or voluntary muscles that cover the bones and enable us through a sophisticated system of levers and springs to move the skeleton. The heart is a cardiac muscle.

In the case of sports activity, therefore, we speak exclusively of skeletal muscle.

The reasons why they lose tone are both related to age and physical activity, as well as individual diseases. What defines the progressive degradation of their functionality is called sarcopenia, a term invented in 1988 by Dr. Irwin Rosemberg which literally means “poverty of muscle,” or in other words, muscle atrophy. Exactly: with age and increasingly sporadic use due to lack or scarcity of physical activity, muscles atrophy.

They are in fact composed of single elongated cells formed by two types of proteins, actin and myosin, which make them contract and relax like rubber bands at different speeds. Over time, muscle cells diminish along with mitochondria, which are necessary for cellular respiration and thus muscle health.

Aging in short starts with them, and the problem is that the nervous system, which is then responsible for their mobility, is also involved: it is in fact the one that controls how and when and with what force these should contract or relax. If the signal, however, is not transmitted with adequate clarity, coordination and balance problems result.
In short, it is as if our operating system can no longer use any app, or there are continuous interruptions on data transmission.

The secret to aging better

It is evident at this point that it is not possible to keep our muscles young forever. It is equally true, as we often repeat, that you do not stop exercising because you get old but you get old because you stop exercising.

Movement is, once again, the secret to keeping the functionality of muscles high, thus delaying their aging and, above all, ensuring a more enjoyable old age as free as possible from physical problems and aches and pains. But that’s not all: muscles need to be nourished, and through protein, they can stay active and responsive.

As we age, however, we eat less and sometimes worse, in the sense that we do not stick to a balanced diet.

You will have realized how insufficient or lack of physical activity, in addition to an often inattentive or deficient diet are the perfect mixture to further accelerate degradation that could be contained. How? Well, at this point we have already given you the clues: exercise and nutrition.

Leaving the latter aside for now, let us focus on the former.

The most effective training

Research has shown that the most effective workout to combat aging is weight training. But not generic training: high-speed training is the most recommended, because it increases both muscle power (that is, the speed with which you can lift weights) and strength (that is, it allows you to lift more weight).

Fast training is typical for players in sports that require bursts of energy and alertness, but it is also fine for keeping muscles in shape in old age. Even simple exercises such as getting up quickly from a chair or training triceps with quick weight lifts help not so much to increase muscle mass but to make it more responsive and thus keep it young longer.

As Stephanie Studenski, a geriatrician and professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, says, the focus should not be on the mass of the muscle but rather on its responsiveness. With a view to aging as healthily as possible, it is not in fact important to have a toned and defined physique but rather to be able to react quickly to changes in trim. Indeed, the quality of life at a certain age can be compromised by minor accidents, such as stumbling around the house. In these cases these are not serious episodes per se but can have serious consequences: in fact, often an already debilitated physique is further compromised not by the fall itself but by the damage done afterwards and the difficulties in recovering.

All from the perspective of quality of life, because if it is inevitable that muscle age with us, it is avoidable and postponeable as they do so. Keeping them fit, in short, means climbing stairs with less breathlessness, lifting weights around the house without too much effort, and doing things for longer that come easy when young. And who knows, one day you may not be able to get up from the couch without any effort at all.

(From Scientific American)


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