It sounds like a couch potato’s dream but there really may be a way of enhancing muscle mass and strength while sidestepping physical exercise.
While this isn’t necessarily a good thing for any couch potatoes out there, preserving and increasing muscle mass is a vital issue for older people. That’s because the natural loss of muscle mass with aging can cause a decline in your energy, strength, balance, and your ability to move easily.
What’s more, loss of muscle mass also has a negative impact on your overall health. For instance, it increases the risk of diabetes and puts you at a higher risk of death from heart disease.
Until recently, only a regular program of strength training could slow or reverse this decline in muscle mass. But now there may be a way of achieving the same results just by popping a natural pill.
Muscle metabolism: Why do you lose muscle mass?
Muscle mass hits its peak in your 30s after which it’s downhill all the way.
You lose eight percent of your total muscle mass for each decade after the age of 40, accelerating to 15 percent per decade after you reach the age of 70. This leads to a loss of muscular strength and function, and a wasting away of muscle tissue called sarcopenia.
As a result, there are serious wide-ranging health problems that follow. Your body composition changes — as muscle mass decreases, fat mass increases. This loss of muscle mass saps your energy, depletes your immune system, and increases the risk of falls, frailty, and chronic health conditions. It also shortens survival.
Slowing down this muscle breakdown process is vital, but how?
Resistance exercise training is the #1 treatment
Without doubt the number one strategy to stop the loss of muscle is to engage in a regular program of resistance training. But not everyone is able or willing to do this.
Another strategy is to increase your protein intake. While eating more protein is good advice for any senior– especially since older bodies have a harder time with protein metabolism, or put simply– digesting protein– it’s not going to solve the problem of muscle loss.
You see, increasing your protein intake may increase your muscle mass, but it hasn’t been shown to reliably improve muscle strength or all-round physical functioning in middle aged and older adults.
In fact, if you’re over the age of 50 it’s a good idea to consider adding enzyme-rich foods to your diet to support healthy protein digestion. For example, increasing the amount of raw fruit and vegetables you consume is the best way to get more of these enzymes.
Many people, myself included, take a daily digestive enzyme supplement to improve protein digestion and synthesis.
Fortunately, there’s another strategy available to help you preserve and build muscle mass that’s easy to carry out.
The athlete’s secret: HMB supplements
Several research groups have shown that a supplemental HMB (beta hydroxy beta methylbutyrate) can help preserve and even build muscle mass.
HMB is a metabolite of the essential amino acid leucine that both protects against muscle protein breakdown (called muscle catabolism) and at the same time activates key protein synthesis pathways to increase muscle tissue growth (called muscle anabolism).
Athletes have long used HMB ingestion to enhance skeletal muscle uptake of protein and recover more quickly after training or competition. In fact, studies have shown that HMB appears to reduce muscle protein breakdown and muscle damage after high-intensity exercise.
How can this help us older folks?
HMB: Miracle muscle building supplement
This is important because the processes of muscle breakdown and growth are no longer equal as you get older. You see, with aging, muscle protein breaks down faster than new muscle protein synthesis, or growth. This is what causes a natural loss of muscle mass.
This two-pronged action of HMB has beneficial effects on body composition, specifically muscle mass, muscle strength, and muscle function.
HMB improved muscle mass
Among the HMB supplementation studies is a double-blind trial carried out by the University of Nottingham, England. The team found benefits in muscle cells and body composition in male seniors taking a dietary supplement of HMB on top of resistance training over six weeks.
Only those taking the dietary supplements saw an improvement in thigh mass and an increase in muscle protein synthesis compared to those taking the placebo. They concluded that “supplementation may result in long term benefits…”
What’s more, the resistance exercise training isn’t necessary to increase muscle growth, muscle mass and muscle strength.
Works without exercise too
A six-month double-blind trial in seniors carried out by researchers at the University of Central Florida concluded that HMB taken on its own, without resistance training, “enhances strength and MQ (muscle quality)…thereby supporting its potential as a nutritional intervention to prevent sarcopenia and its associated functional decline in people as they age.”
After reviewing the literature, researchers from Italy proposed that “HMB may be utilized to protect or rebuild muscle mass in older people with reduced lean body mass.”
A review of clinical trials published in 2021 concluded that “HMB has a positive effect on body composition and strength, especially in bedridden or sedentary elderly…”
Muscle growth: Sunshine vitamin increases HMB’s effects
The most comprehensive study to date was conducted by researchers at Iowa State University. It showed that HMB will produce even better results if combined with the sunshine vitamin, or vitamin D.
Their randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial divided 117 participants over the age of 60 into four groups.
Two groups took HMB plus vitamin D with or without resistance exercise training. Another two groups took a placebo with or without resistance exercise training. Researchers carried out comprehensive functional tests over the course of the year-long trial.
The findings showed that when compared to the placebo and no exercise group, those taking the supplement of HMB plus vitamin D without exercising showed a significant improvement in physical function. However, in those carrying out resistance training the supplement of HMB and vitamin D showed no additional benefit.
The researchers concluded by writing: “This study demonstrated the potential of HMB and vitamin D3 supplementation to enhance muscle strength and physical functionality in older adults, even in individuals not engaged in an exercise training program.”
Why vitamin D?
It’s not only good for bones, it’s good for your skeletal muscle mass.
The Iowa group explained by writing that “vitamin D insufficiency is now recognized as an independent risk factor for accelerated muscle loss, poor physical performance, and falls.”
Vitamin D insufficiency is also very common, they wrote, affecting between half and three-quarters of older adults.
So, for those wishing to supplement with HMB it’s advisable to find one with vitamin D included, or if not, then take vitamin D as a separate supplement.
For those with serious, chronic health conditions, the benefits of HMB supplementation can be a Godsend.
HMB especially effective for the chronically ill or frail
One of the most deadly things about certain illnesses such as cancer is that the very nature of the disease promotes loss of muscle mass. There’s even a term for this, cachexia. It describes extreme weight loss and muscle wasting and is defined by a loss of more than five percent of one’s healthy body composition over the course of a year.
Cachexia is extremely dangerous and is linked to death in cancer patients. But what many people don’t realize is that very elderly people or people whose health has declined rapidly with age can also suffer from cachexia.
But the good news is that HMB supplementation appears to be particularly effective for preserving strength, muscle mass and body composition in bedridden people– such as cancer patients– or older adults. So, if you or a loved one is suffering from frailty due to illness or aging, I urge you to consider HMB supplementation.
How to use HMB supplementation
If you want to take HMB supplements, researchers who have investigated HMB supplementation suggest a general range for dosage. They say a frequently administered dosage of between one to three grams of HMB daily will reduce muscle mass losses over time. Very few studies have examined doses of HMB supplementation above three grams per day over time.
HMB is widely available in health food stores and online. You can find HMB in capsules, tablets and even a powder.
While this is all well and good…
Exercise performance is still important
I want to go on record as saying, if you’re still able to exercise, you should.
While dietary supplements of beta hydroxy beta methylbutyrate alone will offer new hope for folks who are sick, disabled or can’t perform physical exercise for some reason, these supplements have not yet been shown to provide any of the other health benefits of a regular exercise regimen.
Yes, HMB supplements can help change your body composition, improve muscle metabolism and increase muscle mass and muscle strength as well as stop the muscle damage that comes with aging, but regular exercise still has HMB beat.
That’s because it’s only exercise that’s been shown to help you reduce fat mass and lose weight, reduce insulin resistance and protect your heart. Exercise has also been shown to improve your immune system and fight inflammation– both of which are necessary to ward off numerous chronic diseases of aging.