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Visiting researcher tells Athens seniors how to stay strong

(ATHENS, Ohio—June 25, 2014) Getting older doesn’t have to mean getting drastically weaker. That was the good news delivered to an audience of around 100 Athens community members by a visiting European researcher at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.

In a community seminar sharing findings from his and others’ research on the effects of nutrition and exercise on muscle mass in older adults, Michael Tieland, Ph.D., invoked the example of the late Jack LaLanne. Long before Jane Fonda began making workout videos, LaLanne was preaching the gospel of exercise plus proper nutrition for healthy aging.

Tieland, a researcher in the Division of Human Nutrition at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, is a visiting scientist with the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI). He said research suggests that LaLanne, who died in 2011 at age 96, got it essentially correct when he said, “Exercise is king; nutrition is queen. Put them together and you have a kingdom.”

As adults age, Tieland said, they tend to lose muscle mass and with it, strength and mobility. This can lead to a host of problems, including injuries from falling; dependency on others for care; loneliness and depression; and lowered quality of life. But, he added, improved nutrition and exercise can arrest this process and even turn it around.

The key to reversing the loss of muscle mass and strength, he said, is combining resistance exercise with increased intake of the right kinds of protein. He noted that muscle proteins are constantly breaking down and being built up, or synthesized; the trick is to keep the overall rate of synthesis ahead of the breakdown rate.

Two great enemies of muscle mass, according to Tieland, are inactivity and inadequate nutrition. For example, he said, a five-day stay in a hospital bed can result in the loss of up to a kilogram of muscle mass – which would then take many weeks to regain. “Inactivity is really destructive of muscle,” he warned.

What his research suggests, Tieland said, is that older adults should be eating at least 25 grams of protein at every meal – about what you could get from a large serving of Greek yogurt. Even more would be better (up to a point), he said, but there are limits to how much protein one can feasibly ingest in a single sitting.

In addition to how much protein a person takes in, Tieland said, the type of protein it is and the timing of when it’s eaten appear to make a difference. Some forms of protein are more readily used by the body to create muscle than others; dairy proteins, for instance, tend to be “very potent to induce muscle protein synthesis,” he said.

As for timing, Tieland noted that even a few hours without eating can push the breakdown rate of muscle protein ahead of the synthesis rate. This suggests that more frequent intake of protein might be useful, though Tieland said there’s need for more study in what is “really a sort of young science still.”

He also stressed that some research seems to suggest that, at least for frail older adults, increased protein intake alone won’t do much for muscle mass without the added factor of resistance exercise.

“Both interventions must come together for optimal response,” he said. He also cautioned that the level of resistance exercise used in a scientific study can be considerably more demanding than a person might choose in a personal workout.

“Our (exercise) intensities are quite high,” he noted, adding that this means work still needs to be done on translating research findings into practical applications.

OMNI, which sponsored Tieland’s talk, brings together physicians, engineers, neuroscientists, physiologists, psychologists and allied health researchers to improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention of musculoskeletal and neurological disorders. OMNI concentrates on two research areas – musculoskeletal and neurological pain disorders, and healthy aging – with the aim of developing interventions that will remove barriers to independent physical mobility and ultimately reduce disability.

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Last updated: 01/28/2016