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Want a healthier body and better immunity? Mind your muscles, experts say

Muscle mass and strength may decline with age, but safeguarding your muscles with proactive measures can futureproof your health and support the body’s ability to fend off and recover from illnesses.

Want a healthier body and better immunity? Mind your muscles, experts say

When paired with regular exercise that incorporates resistance training, nutritional intervention may help to preserve muscle strength. Images: Abbott Nutrition

For many adults, a trip to the doctor’s office would involve having their vitals checked. This typically includes measurements that assess general health, such as blood pressure, pulse and weight.

But when was the last time you or your doctor considered the state of your muscle health? 

Muscles form the largest component of one’s total lean body mass, and they usually account for half to 60 per cent of a person’s body weight.

Although research has shown that muscles are essential for a healthy body and immune system at every stage of life, they remain an overlooked indicator of health and well-being.

A KEY BAROMETER OF YOUR HEALTH

Dr Chan Kin Ming, a geriatric specialist at Chan KM Geriatric and Medical Clinic, said that muscles play a crucial role in maintaining the body’s structure, movement, balance and posture, as well as metabolism and even facial structure.

“Both muscle protein breakdown and muscle protein building are happening in the body throughout the day. The goal is to ensure that breakdown isn’t happening faster than the building,” he said.

However, muscle breakdown can accelerate with age, illness and immobility. According to Dr Chan, up to around 8 per cent of muscle mass may be lost every decade after the age of 40, and this loss can reach 15 per cent per decade after 70.

Malnutrition is another factor that can speed up the loss of muscle mass. According to a recent study, four in five older adults in Singapore with malnutrition risk have four times greater probability of low muscle mass in contrast to normally nourished individuals.

With low muscle mass and strength, the body’s ability to perform daily activities is affected. Climbing stairs becomes challenging; a trip to the grocery store may feel like a marathon and just trying to unscrew a bottle cap can leave you winded.  

Dr Chan warned: “When we lose muscle mass, we face a higher risk of immobility, increased falls, loss of independence as well as physical and mental fatigue. Severe loss of muscle mass and strength, if left undetected, can lead to higher risks of bone fractures arising from falls and a functional decline in everyday activities and physical disability.”

YOUR IMMUNITY CAN BE AFFECTED

Low muscle mass also has implications on the immune system as muscles produce and release compounds that affect some immune cells. According to Dr Chan, people with low muscle mass face an increased likelihood of illness and injuries, frailty and a slower recovery from illnesses.

“Immunity can be potentially impaired by 10 per cent loss of muscle, while a further loss of 20 per cent can lead to decreased healing ability. Given this relationship between muscle mass and immune function, it is all the more important to take action now to maintain good muscle health,” he said. 

Something as simple as the firmness of a handshake can offer insights into a person’s overall health. Weaker handgrip and leg strength are common signs of low muscle mass. Other signs include fatigue, slower walking speed, unintentional weight loss and frequent falls, said Dr Chan.

WHAT’S YOUR MUSCLE AGE?

To raise awareness of the importance of muscle strength, Abbott recently launched the Muscle Age Calculator as part of its 2020 #Stand4Strength campaign. This tool helps adults determine their muscle age, which is an indicator of one’s muscle strength and performance in the lower limbs.

Ms Anna Jacob, nutrition director at Abbott in Singapore, said muscle age can be determined by performing a simple five-times sit-to-stand test and matching the test time to the person’s biological age group using the Muscle Age Calculator.

Emphasising the importance of paying attention to muscle strength early to prevent premature loss of muscle function, Ms Jacob said: “Your muscle age may not necessarily be equal to your biological age. Individuals in their 40s may have a higher muscle age if they take longer than average to complete the five-times sit-to-stand test.”

Given the implications that a higher muscle age has on the individual’s muscle health, it is especially critical for older adults and the elderly to find out their muscle age and act early to minimise the loss of muscle mass brought on by age.

MINIMISING LOSS OF MUSCLE

Although ageing is inevitable, the good news is that loss of your muscle function can be slowed down or minimised with proactive measures.

Dr Chan said when paired with regular exercise that incorporates resistance training, nutritional intervention can help to preserve and maintain muscle mass and strength.

According to Ms Jacob, ensuring complete and balanced nutrition remains fundamental to overall health and well-being as one ages, but there is a need to increase protein intake, which is the building block of muscle tissue. In general, older adults require nearly 50 per cent more protein than younger adults.

The recommended daily protein intake for an adult is around 0.8g per kg of body weight, but the protein requirement of an older adult is 1.2g of protein per kg of body weight, said Ms Jacob. For an older adult weighing 60kg, this would translate to taking 72g of protein per day.

Ms Jacob advised increasing protein intake by ensuring an adequate portion of quality protein food, such as meat, shellfish, eggs, yogurt, nuts and beans, at each main meal. However, she pointed out that this may be a challenge for seniors due to changes in the sense of taste and those who have chewing or swallowing problems.

For older adults who are not eating well and have difficulty meeting their nutritional requirements through food alone, Ms Jacob said that including an oral nutritional supplement that contains HMB (beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate) and high-quality protein as part of the daily diet can help them get protein to support muscle mass and strength.

Research has found that HMB, an amino acid metabolite that occurs naturally in small amounts in human muscle cells, slows muscle breakdown and supports the building of muscle tissue.

Recognising the important role of HMB in preserving muscle mass, Abbott has focused on pioneering scientific research on innovative nutrition and the efficacy of HMB to address muscle health challenges. In the past 15 years, more than 20 clinical studies on the role of HMB in muscle health have been conducted.

Ms Jacob said: “The role of HMB in muscle health has been studied extensively and the evidence points to its ability to preserve muscle during bed rest and illness. However, getting HMB naturally and meeting the studied level of HMB through food alone can be challenging. In addition, HMB levels in the body decline with age.”

Loss of muscle function as you age can be debilitating. To reduce your risk, be aware of your muscle age and take action to improve your muscle strength early in life.

To find out your muscle age, take Abbott’s Stand4Strength Muscle Age Calculator test. Find out more on how you can build and preserve muscle health through nutrition.


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