Maintaining Muscle as we Age

Tom and Tony flipping a tireHow can we maintain muscle mass as we age? This is a very important question to masters athletes. Since we are all destined to become masters athletes, it should be important to all of us. As we age our bodies lose the ability to recover. Part of recovery is tissue regeneration and muscle synthesis. If we can figure out how to improve muscle synthesis in masters athletes, then we can keep athletes active and happy for longer.

A recent study advances this front by proposing a method to improve muscle synthesis in older men: eating more carbohydrate. The role of insulin in muscle synthesis isn’t completely understood, but previous studies make it clear that consuming carbohydrate in conjunction with protein generally promotes muscle growth.  Perhaps aging populations need an even larger dose of carbs with their protein?

The study examined 24 healthy men around 75 years old. One group was given 20 grams of protein alone. Another group was given 20 grams of protein with 40 grams of carbohydrate. The two groups consumed their meals and then had small biopsies taken from muscle tissue at 2 hours and 6 hours afterwards. Which group would show more muscle synthesis?

Well, they turned out about the same. The group that consumed both carbs and protein showed a slight tendency for more muscle synthesis immediately after eating, but the effect was gone after 6 hours. The carbohydrate group definitely showed higher insulin levels after eating, which was expected. But the increased insulin did not substantially contribute to protein synthesis after 6 hours. So unfortunately, the study’s hypothesis was rejected.

However, it’s important to recognize that the carbohydrate group did show increased muscle synthesis immediately after their meal. If one eats several times per day, then perhaps this small increase would add up. Over the course of weeks and months, this could mean several pounds of lean muscle, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. I’ve personally found carbohydrate consumption critical to putting on lean muscle. Insulin is an anabolic hormone, and the body just seems reluctant to build muscle without it. Have you had different experience?