By Kevin Kolodziejski
Death, Taxes, and the Loss of Muscle Mass
If he had been a cyclist, I’m sure Ben Franklin’s body would’ve looked much different — and so would one of his most famous sayings. If the prodigious writer would’ve been as prodigious a rider, he would’ve been ripped instead of roly-poly and better able to see what was happening to his arms and legs as he aged. So in that letter written a year before his death to the French physician Jean-Baptiste Leroy, he would’ve added yet another inevitability to “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
The loss of muscle mass.
Say Hello to Sarcopenia
The buffed and biking Ben would’ve been explaining to the Parisian doc what medicos now call sarcopenia. In “Sarcopenia: The Mystery of Muscle Loss,” Chantal Vella, M.S. and Len Kavitz, Ph.D., characterize the condition as the inevitable loss of muscle mass, strength, and function that begins as early as the fourth decade of life, accelerates rapidly by the middle of the eight decade, and is caused by a number of age-related “contributing factors,” including a reduction of physical activity and structured exercise.
Theirs is an unpromising assessment of your golden years, for sure. For just like Ben, at the end you can never defeat Father Time. You can frustrate the hell out of him, however — and for a good long while — by doing all you can to slow sarcopenia to a snail’s pace.
Pound the Protein
As you age, your body doesn’t turn protein into muscle as well as it once did. A comprehensive review, “Dietary protein recommendations and the prevention of sarcopenia,” published in the January 2009 issue of Current Opinion on Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, for instance, found that 10-to-20-gram servings of protein in the young stimulated the protein synthesis that leads to muscle building. That amount in the “old,” though, “blunted” protein synthesis. That’s why well before you get barraged by offers for walk-in bathtubs, discreet hearing aids, and AARP mailers, you should make sure each meal contains at least 30 grams of high-quality protein and that the ratio of protein to carbs in all snacks is close to 1-to-1. In other words, the first dietary adjustment for aiding your cycling while aging is to “pound the protein.”
While the aforementioned review does not use that informal phrase or address the issue of snacking, it does recommend eating meals containing 25 to 30 grams of high-quality protein to prevent sarcopenia and calls doing so “a novel and specific approach.” And if you were the sort who could eat whatever in your 20s and 30s and not gain an ounce, dietary adjustment number two will be a novel one as well.
Become a Nutrition Nazi
Yes, “Nazi” can be an offensive word. But you’d be better served by saving your umbrage for another hurtful word, sarcopenia. No matter what you do, Father Time’s use of it makes sure you lose some of the muscle that motors the bike around the age of 45. Aging cyclists who eat the way the now-outlawed National Socialist German Workers’ Party ruled, however, can minimize the amount.
That means eating junk food needs to be a thing of the past or no more than a once-a-week treat. To stifle sarcopenia, every calorie has to count. The reason why is simple enough. While you need plenty of energy to feel good and fuel your rides, you need to eat less because you’re carrying less muscle mass.
Even at rest, your muscles burn calories. Each pound of it needs between 50 and 68 calories per day to function properly. If you lose just one pound of muscle and fail to cut back on cals consumed commensurately, you could be as much as seven pounds heavier one year later.
And besides being nutritionally lacking, calorie dense, and the number-one way to gain unwanted weight, eating junk food accelerates the aging process. Not only does it increase the free-radical damage that leads to sagging skin, but it can also create the low-grade chronic inflammation that has been linked to diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
If you’re a bit hazy about what’s considered junk food, Dr. Phil Maffetone has an ominous — yet spot-on — answer for you. He says, “If you have to ask, you’re probably eating it.” Though it’s often used as a catch-all term, the following foods are included in every listing of junk food I’ve ever seen: sugar-sweetened drinks and sodas; luncheon meats; sugary cereals and most breakfast bars; snacks like potato chips, pretzels, and crackers; baked goods like desserts, bagels, and white breads; most microwaveable and/or frozen meals; and most of the offerings at convenience stores and fast-food restaurants.
Cycling Less May Be Best
While you may find this advice ironic, for many in the graying peloton it’s essential — and for an important reason besides enhanced recovery. You’ll read about it next time.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.