Article by Wayne Westcott and Rita La Rosa Loud
Components for the most effective senior fitness training program to combat muscle and bone loss
Inactive aging is associated with significant amounts of muscle loss on a year-by-year basis. Adults who do not perform some type of strength training sacrifice more than 5 pounds of muscle tissue every decade. Unfortunately, older adults lose even more than that. So, strength training exercise is the cornerstone of a good senior fitness training program.
Muscle loss leads to bone loss and metabolic slowdown
Because our muscles function as the engines of our bodies, muscle loss and weight gain has serious repercussions in terms of health and fitness. For example, muscle loss leads to bone loss and metabolic slowdown. And again, while this is true for adults of all ages, it is especially true for older adults. And this is why proper strength training is so important.
Strength training is essential as part of a solid senior fitness training program
Fortunately, our research and many other studies have shown that regular strength training exercise can prevent muscle loss in older adults. Strength training can actually increase muscle mass at any age.
For example, the 90-year old men and women in our nursing home study added almost 4 pounds of muscle after just 14 weeks. This was accomplished with a simple senior fitness training program consisting of relatively brief (20 minute) resistance training sessions performed twice a week¹.
Adequate protein intake is essential as part of a solid senior fitness training program
There are two sides to the muscle building coin. One side is providing the essential strength training stimulus. The other side is attaining the essential amino acids (proteins) for muscle tissue remodeling. This protein intake is an important, and often overlooked, area of fitness nutrition for older adults and effective senior fitness training.
Older adults need more protein than younger adults
While it would seem that most Americans eat enough protein-rich foods, this is frequently a faulty assumption, especially for adults over age 50. Basically, the amount of daily protein that is sufficient for younger adults is not adequate for older adults.
Aging effects protein processing efficiency
There are two reasons for this common occurrence. First, older men and women do not process protein as efficiently as younger adults. Because of this their bodies need more protein intake for tissue remodeling.
Older adults need extra protein for making new muscle
Second, older adults’ muscles need larger amounts of protein than younger adults. This extra protein is needed to stimulate the protein synthesis necessary for making new muscle tissue.
According to leading nutrition researcher, Wayne Campbell, people over age 50 need at least 25 percent more protein than the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) to maintain their muscle tissue. And this is true even if they perform regular strength training exercise². RDAs are set by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences.
Strength training and protein are both needed for the best senior fitness training program results
Campbell further states to increase their muscle mass, seniors must combine sensible strength training with at least 50 percent more protein than the RDA. Many prominent nutrition researchers suggest that older adults consume at least 20 grams of protein at breakfast, lunch and dinner. And some fitness nutrition advocates eating up to 30 grams of protein at each meal.
The essential amino acids are best attained in eggs, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, poultry and fish
In addition to eating more protein-rich foods, an emphasis should be placed on those that contain the essential amino acids. Only the essential amino acids in our food can produce protein synthesis, and of the 9 essential amino acids the most important appears to be leucine. These proteins are best attained in eggs, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, poultry and fish.
Timing of protein intake is important for the best senior fitness training program results
While eating more protein should be a lifestyle priority for senior men and women, the timing of protein consumption may be even more important with respect to muscle building in an older adult fitness program.
Several senior fitness studies have demonstrated that protein should be ingested shortly after a resistance training session. This timing makes the protein significantly more effective for gaining strength and adding muscle tissue³.
Strength training studies
We recently conducted two older adult fitness studies in which half of the participants drank a protein rich shake right after their strength training exercise (11 resistance machines). The other half did not do so.
In the first study4, those who consumed 24 grams of post-exercise protein added 5.5 pounds of muscle. This was compared to 3.9 pounds of new muscle for those who did not take extra protein.
In the second study5, those who consumed 24 grams of post-exercise protein added 5.2 pounds of muscle. This was compared to 3.9 pounds of new muscle for those who did not take extra protein.
Additionally, in the first study, the participants who drank the protein shake after their workout lost 9.0 pounds of fat. Those who did not do so lost only 4.9 pounds of fat.
Taking a protein-rich snack right after a strength training session provides the best senior fitness training program results
Our research results are consistent with many other older adult fitness studies. There are significant body composition benefits by taking a protein-rich snack right after your strength training session. Our study participants ingested a commercial protein shake.
Milk, chocolate milk, yogurt and other good sources of amino acids/proteins work as well as a commercial protein shake
But other research has shown similar effects from milk, chocolate milk, yogurt and other good sources of amino acids/proteins. Nutrition authorities recommend consuming about 20 grams of post-exercise protein for best results.
And this extra protein is especially important for older adults who do not process protein as efficiently as younger adults. So, adding the recommendation for extra protein after a strength training session is especially good advice for senior fitness training.
The best approach is a two-part process
It would therefore appear that the best approach for maintaining and increasing muscle tissue is a two-part process. This process should combine regular strength training with post-exercise protein supplementation.
Properly performed strength training exercise is essential for stimulating muscle tissue remodeling processes that lead to larger and stronger muscles. Readily available protein is necessary for supplying the amino acids that provide the muscle tissue building blocks.
Consuming extra protein at meals is less effective for muscle development than ingesting supplemental protein post workout
According to leading medical researchers, muscle tissue is especially receptive to assimilating amino acids right after exercise. Consuming extra protein at meals has been shown to be less effective for muscle development than ingesting supplemental protein post workout. And again, this post workout protein is even more valuable for older adults as part of a good senior fitness training program.
Strength training and post-exercise protein plus daily calcium and vitamin D supplements needed for bone building
If you are interested in building bone, our recent research indicates that post-exercise protein plus daily calcium and vitamin D supplements may be more beneficial than strength training alone.
The participants in our 9-month osteoporosis prevention study who did not exercise or take the nutritional supplements lost 1 percent of their bone mineral density. Those who did strength training but did not take the nutritional supplements maintained their initial level of bone mineral density.
The older adult fitness participants who did strength training and consumed the nutritional supplements increased their bone mineral density by 1 percent. These results are supported by other studies. Greater musculoskeletal benefits are seen when resistance training is coupled with supplemental protein and key nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D.
Musculoskeletal development is optimized for senior fitness training by including strength training exercise, post exercise protein and calcium/vitamin D supplementation
While an effective senior fitness training program can combat muscle loss, it can also be optimized to combat bone loss.
Based on our study results, we suggest that musculoskeletal development may be optimized by including the following strength training exercise and nutrition components:
- 8 to 12 resistance exercises that cumulatively address all of your major muscle groups, performed 2 or 3 non-consecutive days per week;
- post-exercise protein supplement that supplies approximately 20-25 grams of protein;
- daily calcium supplement that provides approximately 500 mg; and
- daily vitamin D supplement that provides approximately 1200 IUs.
Create a niche for yourself in senior fitness training
You can make a difference in the lives of older adults by implementing a good senior fitness training program for your older adult clients. This article taught you some of the reasons that a good training program is important and what should be included. But, you need to have an adequate knowledge base to create a niche for yourself in senior fitness training as a senior fitness specialist.
The American Academy of Health and Fitness is here to help you with this all-important training you will need to be a safe and effective trainer of older adults. We offer a varied selection of in-depth, advanced continuing education courses.
You will find training in areas such as senior health and fitness, fitness assessment, senior strength training, back stability, fitness nutrition for special dietary needs, lifestyle wellness coaching and cancer exercise. The home study continuing education course SrFit Mature Fitness is definitely one not to miss if you want to work as a senior fitness specialist! Certainly, everything you need to create your niche in senior fitness training!
- Westcott, W. Strength training for frail older adults. Journal on Active Aging, 8(4): 52-59, 2009.
- Schardt, D. Saving muscle: How to stay strong and healthy as you age. Nutrition Action Health Letter, 34(3): 3-8.
- Hoffman, J. Protein intake: Effect of timing. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 29(6): 26-34, 2007.
- Westcott, W, Martin, W, La Rosa Loud, R, Stoddard, S. Protein supplementation and body composition changes. Fitness Management, 24(5): 50-53, 2008.
- Westcott, W, Varghese, J, DiNubile, N, et al. Exercise and nutrition more effective than exercise alone for increasing lean weight and reducing resting blood pressure. Journal of Exercise Physiology, 14(4): 120-133, 2011.