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How to eat and exercise your way to healthy ageing

Many of us first think about healthy ageing the day we turn 65, but age-related changes in our bodies start long before that. This article by Teagasc Researchers Caoileann Murphy and Sinéad McCarthy, first appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm recently

You can now listen to this article as a podcast episode on RTÉ Brainstorm

 Today, you can expect to live approximately 30 years longer than your great-great grandparents did 100 years ago. These bonus years provide endless opportunities to see the world, spend quality time with family, take on new challenges and do the things we love.

Healthy Ageing

But the value of these extra years relies heavily on one key factor: health. While we all age at the same rate chronologically, some people's bodies and minds age faster than others from a biological perspective. This is why the 95-year-old gymnast Johanna Quaas can perform seemingly effortless flips and handstands while another 95-year old you know may struggle to climb the stairs or live independently.

The rate at which we age biologically is influenced to some extent by our genes, but far more by the environments we live in and personal factors like our socioeconomic status and lifestyle. Engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviours (like eating a healthy diet, taking regular physical activity, avoiding smoking and avoiding excess alcohol consumption) across our lifespan can greatly slow biological ageing and help prevent or delay many of the health issues associated with getting older.

Many of us may first think about healthy ageing the day we blow out 65 birthday candles and are officially classified as an "older adult". Yet age-related changes in our bodies start many years before that. One of these changes starts around our forties when we start to lose about 1% of our muscle mass and 2 to 3% of our strength each year. To put that in context, that's equivalent to losing one 9-oz (255 grams) steak-worth of muscle in an average man, or one 6-oz (170 grams) steak-worth of muscle in an average woman each year.


Over time, this can lead to a disease called sarcopenia, which is characterised by low muscle mass and strength. Sarcopenia can impair our ability to walk, climb and lift, making it more difficult to independently perform daily physical tasks we usually take for granted like carrying shopping or lifting ourselves out of a chair. Sarcopenia increases our risk of falls, fractures, and disability, and doubles the chances we will need to move to a long-term care home. Most importantly, it can lead to poor quality of life during those "bonus" years we have won over the past century.

The good news is that we have effective tools to prevent, and in some cases even reverse, sarcopenia. By far the most potent tool is exercise, particularly resistance exercise (such as lifting weights). Research has repeatedly shown that regular resistance exercise that involves increasingly challenging exercises over time builds muscle, improves strength and reduces the risk of developing a disability in older adults, even among those in their 90s or living in long-term care. 

The next important tool is a nutritious diet that provides enough protein, which is found in foods like meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, beans, lentils, tofu and nuts. When we perform a session of resistance exercise or eat a meal that contains protein, this sends a signal to our body to ramp up the rate of muscle building. In addition to the signal to build new muscle, we need the right building blocks, and these come from the protein we eat. For example, if we eat any protein-containing food (such as a glass of milk), some of the protein from that milk will be inside your muscles three hours later as brand-new muscle tissue. You quite literally are what you just ate!

Building Muscle

Compared to younger adults, older adults are less efficient at using the protein they eat to build new muscle. This means that older adults may need to eat more protein to help preserve their muscle mass as they age. At each meal, older adults are encouraged to eat a moderate serving of protein-rich foods, equivalent to approximately 3 – 4 oz (85 – 113 grams) of meat, poultry, or fish, or two to three eggs plus a glass of milk, to help maximise rates of muscle building over the day.

Do you eat enough protein?

Despite the scientific evidence that protein is highly important for our muscles, especially as we age, our new research suggests that a substantial proportion of middle-aged and older people in Ireland do not see protein as an important aspect of their diets. Inspired by focus group discussions in which one older gentleman proclaimed, "I wouldn't know a protein if it hit me in the head", we decided to research consumer knowledge about protein and asked over 500 men and women aged 45 to 81 years about protein in their diet. 36% of participants did not perceive protein as being important in their diets, and a further 63% believed that older people do not need more protein than younger people.

However, most of the participants in the survey were strongly motivated by health when making food choices and were interested in buying foods that help them age healthily. This shows that we need to spread the word to the people of Ireland that protein foods are a key part of the healthy diet and are particularly important as we get older to help us live our bonus years to the full. As doctors, friends and family were perceived as the most trusted sources of nutrition information in our survey, these groups have a particularly important role to play in spreading this important message.

If you are worrying that you may have missed the boat, fear not. It’s never too late to start eating and exercising for healthy ageing…and you never know, soon you too may be doing flips like Quaas!

Disclaimer: general advice provided here should not replace advice specific to any individual. Higher protein diets may not be appropriate for people with certain health conditions (such as kidney disease). If you are in doubt about the best approach for you, consult with a registered dietitian. A chartered physiotherapist or a qualified exercise professional can provide individual advice on an appropriate and safe resistance exercise programme for you. 

Dr Caoileann Murphy is a Registered Dietitian and a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow working in the area of nutrition and healthy ageing at the Teagasc Food Research CentreDr Sinéad McCarthy, is a Public Health Nutritionist with a research focus on consumer behaviour in relation to food, health and sustainability at the Teagasc Food Research Centre.

If you liked this article you might also like to read Eating for ageing