Chronic Exercise Preserves Lean Muscle Mass in Masters Athletes

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Andrew P. Wroblewski, MBS, BS; Francesca Amati, MD, PhD; Mark A. Smiley, MBA, BS; Bret Goodpaster, PhD; and Vonda Wright, MD, MS

Table of Contents

Physician and Sportsmedicine:

Volume 39 No. 3

Category:

Clinical Features

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DOI: 10.3810/psm.2011.09.1933

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Abstract: Aging is commonly associated with a loss of muscle mass and strength, resulting in falls, functional decline, and the subjective feeling of weakness. Exercise modulates the morbidities of muscle aging. Most studies, however, have examined muscle-loss changes in sedentary aging adults. This leaves the question of whether the changes that are commonly associated with muscle aging reflect the true physiology of muscle aging or whether they reflect disuse atrophy. This study evaluated whether high levels of chronic exercise prevents the loss of lean muscle mass and strength experienced in sedentary aging adults. A cross-section of 40 high-level recreational athletes (“masters athletes”) who were aged 40 to 81 years and trained 4 to 5 times per week underwent tests of health/activity, body composition, quadriceps peak torque (PT), and magnetic resonance imaging of bilateral quadriceps. Mid-thigh muscle area, quadriceps area (QA), subcutaneous adipose tissue, and intramuscular adipose tissue were quantified in magnetic resonance imaging using medical image processing, analysis, and visualization software. One-way analysis of variance was used to examine age group differences. Relationships were evaluated using Spearman correlations. Mid-thigh muscle area (P = 0.31) and lean mass (P = 0.15) did not increase with age and were significantly related to retention of mid-thigh muscle area (P < 0.0001). This occurred despite an increase in total body fat percentage (P = 0.003) with age. Mid-thigh muscle area (P = 0.12), QA (P = 0.17), and quadriceps PT did not decline with age. Specific strength (strength per QA) did not decline significantly with age (P = 0.06). As muscle area increased, PT increased significantly (P = 0.008). There was not a significant relationship between intramuscular adipose tissue (P = 0.71) or lean mass (P = 0.4) and PT. This study contradicts the common observation that muscle mass and strength decline as a function of aging alone. Instead, these declines may signal the effect of chronic disuse rather than muscle aging. Evaluation of masters athletes removes disuse as a confounding variable in the study of lower-extremity function and loss of lean muscle mass. This maintenance of muscle mass and strength may decrease or eliminate the falls, functional decline, and loss of independence that are commonly seen in aging adults.

Keywords: lean muscle mass, active aging, disuse atrophy, masters athlete