If you grew up in the 1950s, you may remember the advertisements (mostly in comic books, as I recall) for Charles Atlas’s bodybuilding program. The ads always featured a brawny guy bullying some lanky fellow. A few short weeks (days?) later, that “bag of bones” returns to the scene of the crime with abs of steel, pecs of iron and biceps the size of bowling balls. The bully gets his comeuppance, the formerly wiry guy gets the girl (who suddenly discovers she always wanted to hang with a “he-man”) and all is right in the world.
I was recalling these ads the other day after reading about a new study out of Canada’s McMaster University suggesting that geezers like myself could avoid losing muscle mass as we age by eating a big slab of beef every day. Like Mr. Atlas’s “dynamic tension” exercise system, there’s some science behind the McMaster theory. In order to build — or maintain — muscle mass, your body needs to synthesize protein, and a big slab of beef is an excellent source of protein. That may seem fairly obvious, but the study’s primary point was to note that Canada’s Food Guide recommends 3 ounces of meat per serving, when aging guys, especially, really need twice that much — along with a regular exercise regimen — to keep those bullies at bay. Or, more practically speaking, to simply maintain some level of functionality as we move into our 70s and 80s.
It is a sad fact of life, fitness experts tell us, that we all lose muscle mass as we slide into middle age. It’s called sarcopenia, and while no one is quite sure what causes it, most research has focused on poor nutrition, hormonal changes, inflammation and a general lack of exercise. Those who suffer from sarcopenia tend to be more at risk of falls (and broken bones) as they age. As a result, their ability to live independently into their twilight years is much reduced.
I’m not a guy who worries too much about the future, but I’ve been pretty determined since I hit my 60s to maintain a regular weightlifting routine as a way of building and retaining muscle mass. Like Charles Atlas used to say, all it takes is 15 minutes a day. I’m less conscientious about my protein intake after a workout, and given that my kettlebells and I tend to reconnoiter before breakfast, a 6-ounce steak is rarely going to be on the menu. Still, the McMaster study is a nice reminder that I need to be more attentive to my post-workout nutrition.
After all, the most fearsome bully, when you get to be my age, isn’t some jerk trying to ramp up his low self-esteem; it’s that part of your persona that refuses to acknowledge the fact that you need to work harder at staying fit than you did when you were younger.