Fighting back against the "normal" parts of aging. Part II: Weakness

Feeling weak as a kitten? It is normal “for your age”?

Everyone should know by now that I’m not shy about my belief that you can be strong at any age. When my clients who are 90 remind me that they’re 90, I look at them and say … so?

The topic of what is normal strength loss in aging is a complicated topic and one that is not an easy one to tackle. Because it has so many different factors, the easy thing for us clinicians to do is allow people to believe that weakness is normal.

Here’s my thoughts on this:
SOME loss of strength with age is normal
Not being able to get out of your chair because you are weak is NOT normal OR expected for anyone, at any age, unless there is something else going on!

So what is normal?

We start to lose some of our muscle strength and muscle mass after the age of about 45. After that you have an average loss of about 6% of muscle mass and size PER DECADE! That is less than a percent per year! I’m going to repeat that, you lose 6% every 10 years. If you want to put that into context, by 85 you have approximately 75% of the muscle mass you had at 45. Now that being said they think now that loss of muscle STRENGTH versus loss of muscle SIZE happen at different rates. There is also research to show that strength gets lost faster especially in people that aren’t moving. Regardless, the rate of decline is slow and gradual and not one that I would think made you clinically weak.

Weakness in the medical and research worlds

I must tell you, in the research community this is becoming a HUGE area of study. We are learning so much every day about what happens to our muscles as we age that I would need to write a chapter everyday in order to capture it all. But what we know is that while some loss of muscle size and strength is normal with age, others seem to lose their strength much faster than others. Loss of muscle size that begins to interfere with our daily lives is referred to by doctors as “sarcopenia”. Muscle weakness is called “dynapenia”. The need for two words that describe similar things is because of the differences we have seen between muscle size and muscle strength (we don’t see changes at the same speed). For a person to be considered to have sarcopenia or dynapenia, they would have to fall outside of what is considered a normal loss of strength, that 6% I was talking about earlier.

Reasons for people to have above normal amounts of strength loss could be

  • Lack of use (you are physically inactive, bed bound, in hospital, in a cast etc.)
  • Disease
  • Not eating properly/ malnutrition
  •  Can be separate or act together (for example if you’re in the hospital you probably aren’t eating the best!).

I talk often of this downward spiral that starts to happen many times as we get older. We feel weaker or more tired than years passed so we start to sit more. This causes us to feel MORE tired and MORE weak and we get into this vicious cycle. We need to stop it! We CAN stop it and that is the important point. This goes back to Part One of this series on tiredness (check it out here!).

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Weakness is bad for your health!

A person who is considered to have sarcopenia is at an increased risk of different illnesses. Not to mention we need strength to be able to do our chores daily (though I can see sometimes why you wouldn’t want to do them, being unable to do them on the other hand is not desirable). Persons who were labelled as having sarcopenia had a 2-3x more like to have an issue with movement compared to persons without sarcopenia of the same age.

Loss of muscle mass makes your metabolic rate lower, which can go straight to our waistline. It can contribute to us getting diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease. They have even gone so far to show that it increases our mortality risk (ie passing away sooner than we want to).

But there’s something easy that we can do … start to strengthen them!

So far this may seem like a grim story. All of these bad things start to happen when we begin to feel weak. The best part of this story is that there is something that we all can do to stop this from happening… and you can start at 18, 40 or 75…and that is to start strength training. Lifting weights can look different to different people but in the end it is moving against gravity often with some kind of weight.

In popular media we have seen amazing examples of men and women who are showing the world who’s boss by continuing to be extremely strong into their retirement years and beyond.

Charles Staley was in his early 50’s before he started lifting weights and now he can deadlift over 500 lbs!

Ernestine Shepherd is 77 years old and she is a body builder who began working out at the age of 56. She was featured on Oprah and she is showing aging who is boss! Who are we kidding, Oprah herself is showing aging who’s boss.

People in our own community are showing that you can improve at any age – check out Neill and William!

Our goal should be to let these anecdotes keep piling up until they become the norm, what we are used to seeing.

Want to learn more about how you can get strong and fit at any age?

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1. Janssen, I. The epidemiology of sarcopenia. Clin Geriatr Med. 2011. 27:355-63.

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Christina Prevett

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