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It is no secret that our bodies change as we age. Over time, most of us will notice wrinkles and grey hair gradually appearing. Shrinking muscles, another result of aging, may not be as obvious.

This natural and continuous loss of muscle mass, known as sarcopenia, begins as early as age 30. However, most people do not notice the effect until much later in life. While age is the main cause of sarcopenia, it is not the only one—you are also more likely to lose muscle mass if you lead an inactive life.

As your muscles become smaller, they also become weaker.

Unless you work to keep up your muscle strength, as you age, you may eventually find it more difficult to perform everyday activities, such as standing up from a chair, stepping out of a bathtub, and performing simple tasks, such as carrying groceries and opening jars.

Muscle loss can lead to diabetes complications

If you live with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, shrinking muscles can affect your health in an additional way.

“For people with diabetes, muscle loss also reduces the muscles’ capacity to absorb sugar [glucose] from the blood via insulin,” says Chris McGlory, an assistant professor at the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University. “This can result in higher blood glucose levels and an increased risk for complications of diabetes, such as insulin resistance, and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, amputations, and vision loss.” With funding support from Diabetes Canada, McGlory is researching the use of fish oil supplements as a possible solution for the loss of muscle mass (see “Can fish oil help maintain muscle?”) He has been funded for other studies in the past.

How to maintain or rebuild your muscles

Do not worry: There are steps you can take to increase or maintain your strength.

Studies show that resistance exercise can help to avoid and even reverse muscle loss. Examples include lifting light weights or soup cans, using exercise machines, and performing exercises that use your own body weight. For people living with diabetes, resistance exercise can also improve blood sugar levels. (You can learn more about this in “Key Messages for People with Diabetes” in the Physical Activity and Diabetes chapter of the Diabetes Canada 2018 Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Prevention and Management of Diabetes in Canada.)

People who are new to exercise should focus on activities that they find enjoyable and manageable and that they can practise regularly, says McGlory. “Walking, stair climbing, stationary cycling, and using dumbbells or resistance bands at a gym or community centre, with some professional guidance, are all good muscle-building options.”

Concerned about your muscle strength? “Even if you are 90 years old, starting an exercise program to increase your muscle strength can have a positive effect,” says McGlory. “It’s never too late to get started.”

Can fish oil help maintain muscle?

Evidence shows that consuming fish oil changes the type of fat in human muscle and might protect against muscle loss related to inactivity, which can lead to the development of diabetes symptoms, such as increased blood sugar (glucose).

With funding from Diabetes Canada, Queen’s University researcher Chris McGlory and McMaster University researcher Stuart Phillips demonstrated that consuming five grams of fish oil per day protected young women against the loss of muscle mass and muscle size during two weeks of leg immobilization, such as after knee or ankle surgery.

This protection against muscle loss was associated with an improvement in the way oxygen is used by the mitochondria (the “powerhouses” of our cells that produce energy). Whether the same effect occurs in older women and men is a question that McGlory and Phillips are trying to answer.

Did you know?

Before you begin practising resistance exercises, consult your healthcare team. Once you are ready to get started, visit Diabetes Canada’s Introductory Resistance Program for safety guidelines and illustrated resistance training exercises..

Do you have a story about the difference physical activity has made for you and your health? Please let us know at

(This article appeared in Diabetes Dialogue, Spring 2020)

Author: Barb Gormley

Category Tags: Healthy Living;

Region: National

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