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Sarcopenia in Women - so what's that then??

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

So ladies, I come from a medical background and have studied the human body extensively, but even I didn't realise the significance of oestrogen on our muscles! I have recently become more interested in treating women, with this increased awareness, having written a thesis on the subject for my Masters. There is a lack of awareness out there among women of all ages. Firstly, around the importance of an appropriate diet and maintaining muscle strength while at a young age, but then also how to maintain that soft tissue strength and bone health during the significant transition into older age. This is particularly relevant to women who do lots of cardio, or struggle managing their weight.

I would like to share some of the evidence I have found on the importance of exercise in relation to maintaining muscle strength and mass, and how this helps to reduce the risk of sarcopenia and potentially osteoporosis (which I will cover in another blog post).

Sarcopenia is an age-related loss of muscle mass and strength, with older women being at higher risk, losing up to 21% of their strength (Maltais et al, 2009). This is mainly due to physical inactivity (due to menopausal symptoms), a lack of protein intake and oxidative stress (an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, which can lead to cell and tissue damage), which can result in muscle weakness, falls, and a reduced quality of life (Roubenoff et al, 2000).

Sarcopenia is the result of a reduction in muscle fibres, mainly fast twitch fibres, and happens as a consequence of changes in protein synthesis. This affects a lot of women in the peri-menopausal stage, (Hansen et al, 2014). Both peri and menopausal women are at a higher risk of developing sarcopenia due to an increase in sedentary behaviour, along with the reduction of oestrogen which stimulates protein uptake, and manages body fat distribution - yep that's right, I didn't realise that either! This is why, as we get older, we get fat in places we never used to!

Cardio fitness can make a major contribution to both building and maintaining muscle quality in post-menopausal women (Carvalho et al, 2017). There are many studies that show that ongoing exercise can even reverse sarcopenia and improve function and life expectancy (Roubenoff and Hughes, 2000).

However, studies now show that resistance exercise can be even more effective than cardio in maintaining muscle mass in menopausal women. This also reduces oxidative stress and therefore cell and tissue damage, known to be more apparent in women with higher fat to muscle ratio (Lowe et al, 2010). So, a reduction of oestrogen does not necessarily have to lead to a reduction in muscle mass, and a related increase in body fat. Muscle strength, cardio health and ultimately life expectancy, can all be maintained in peri, menopausal and postmenopausal women, provided a good balance of cardio and resistance exercise is maintained. Exercises which can help with this include: running, cycling, pilates, yoga, body weight exercises and weight training.

If you have any questions or thoughts, please do add to the discussion!

Much Love, Lisa x

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