Article at a glance
Aging can cause reduced muscle mass and decreased strength.
Muscles can become stiff and less toned as you age, as a result of changes in muscle tissue and the nervous system.
Joints tend to lose cartilage and flexibility and can stiffen and become weaker with age.
Physical activity is one of the best ways to keep muscles healthy as you get older. Even light exercise, such as walking or swimming, helps.
For healthy joints, try to stretch and exercise frequently, and also make sure to get enough calcium and vitamin D.
See your doctor if you’re experiencing any muscle or joint pain. Ignoring discomfort or pain can make the situation worse.
Changes in the body — in skin, hair, bones, muscles and joints — are a part of healthy aging. It’s normal to start to see differences in posture, movement, strength, reflexes, muscles and bones. Activities that you once did often and with ease might be more challenging. Interestingly, many of the changes in our muscles and joints are more a result of disuse rather than aging. The group of Americans who are the least physically active are those over 50 years old. With the amount of all Americans who participate in regular exercise already less than 10 percent, many older adults are likely not getting the physical activity they need to promote muscle and joint health. Be aware of what happens to your muscles and joints as you age and what you can do to strengthen and care for your body.
What are the effects of aging on muscles?
Lifting a heavy box doesn’t mean the same thing at age 70 as it did at age 20 — nor does going for a jog or even opening a jar. In older age, muscles inevitably change: risk of injury can increase, and strength and reflexes are reduced. Here are some of the effects of aging on muscles:
A decrease in lean body mass. This happens, in part, because of muscle tissue loss. How fast this happens and how much the muscle changes usually depends on your genes. Women generally experience these changes in their 40s and men may experience them as early as their 20s. This process of muscle shrinkage can be accelerated with an inactive (sedentary) lifestyle.
Age-related muscle loss decreases overall strength. Handgrip strength also decreases, which can make it difficult to carry out everyday activities like turning a key or opening a jar.
An age-related substance (called lipofuscin) and fat accumulate in the muscle tissue and muscle fibers become smaller. Have you ever noticed how hands become thinner and bonier as we age? This is generally a result of lost muscle replaced with tough, fibrous tissue. Additionally, as we get older, muscle takes longer to replace. This shrinking of fibers causes muscles to respond less quickly.
Muscles become less toned and contract less easily. They can also become stiff. This can be attributed to age-related changes in the nervous system, muscle-tissue changes and decreases in the water content of tendons, the cord-like fibrous tissues that connect muscle to bone.
Heart muscles can’t move as much blood around the body. As the heart muscles weaken, they have more difficulty sending blood to the body. This can cause fatigue and slower recovery.
Involuntary movements may happen. Muscle tremors and fine movements are more common in older age.
What happens to your joints as you age?
Loss of cartilage, stiffness and general wear and tear can take a toll on joints in older age. It’s not unusual to see someone in their advanced years stooped over or walking more slowly. These changes often have to do with what happens to joints as you get older.
Stiffness and loss of flexibility
Loss of cartilage in the hip and knee joints
Finger joint changes, generally bony swellings called bone spurs (common in women)
A decrease in joint fluid
Wear and tear of cartilage
Mineral deposit in and around the joints (calcification) — common near the shoulder
A decrease in overall height, as the trunk and spine shorten
Inflammation and pain
Stiffness (minor aches to arthritis), misshapen joints, inflammation
Flexed hips and knees
Narrowed shoulders and a wider pelvis
Slowed or limited movement
Slower and more unsteady walking
Moreover, osteoporosis is a fairly common problem for older women, and bones can break more easily.
What can older adults do to strengthen muscles?
Exercise, exercise, exercise. Physical activity is one of the best ways to avoid problems with muscles, bones and joints. An exercise program tailored to your needs and your fitness level can help promote strength, balance and flexibility. Weight training, in particular, can increase strength and muscle mass and allow older adults to keep going about their everyday activities for longer.
Long-term exercise can slow both the increases in body fat associated with age and the loss of muscle mass. Even just 30 minutes of physical activity per day can be beneficial for your health.
Keep in mind that exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous. You don’t have to do pushups or run a marathon. Dancing, swimming and walking are all perfectly acceptable activities for building strength in older age. You can even divide the 30 minutes of exercise into shorter sessions. For example, do 15 minutes of walking and 15 minutes of working in the garden.
Ask your doctor which type of physical activity is best for you.
How to keep joints healthy
One way to maintain healthy, flexible joints is by stretching. Regular exercise is also an excellent way to prevent joint problems later in life. Remember, exercise doesn’t have to be difficult. Walking, swimming, bicycling, yoga, and even routine activities like gardening and cleaning, can have positive effects.
It’s also important to eat a well-balanced diet with enough calcium and to get plenty of vitamin D (women are especially susceptible to Vitamin D deficiencies). Men and postmenopausal women over 70 should get at least 1,200 mg of calcium and 800 international units of vitamin D per day.
Here are other measures you can take to strengthen bones and joints:
Limit caffeine, as it can weaken bones
Avoid smoking, because it increases inflammation throughout the body
Keep your weight down (more weight will put greater pressure on your joints)
Listen to what your body is telling you and see your doctor if you have any joint pain
Always warm-up before exercise and cool down afterward
Drink water instead of energy drinks and soda — if you don’t stay hydrated, your body can take water from the cartilage and other parts of your body, which can harm your joints.
It’s never too late to start taking care of your muscles and joints to help stave off problems as you grow older. Age inevitably catches up with our bodies but exercising, stretching, getting enough vitamins and minerals, and regularly visiting the doctor are all actions you can take to keep your body healthy and prevent problems from getting worse so you can enjoy your golden years.