When you age, one of the first things that occurs is a loss of muscle mass. This is due to an imbalance in the muscle breakdown/muscle synthesis relationship.
In other words your muscles are breaking down at a faster rate than they are growing, the opposite of what happens when training for hypertrophy.
Even if an older person were to train hard and consume “adequate” protein, they would still be in danger of losing muscle, the reason for this seems to be a “blunting of muscle protein synthesis” meaning that more protein is required than usual.
Other symptoms of aging are a slower metabolism, which can lead to increased body fat build up, less muscle, and an increase in risk of metabolic diseases such as Type II Diabetes. Bone density can also suffer , particularly in women where Osteoporosis is a big concern.
All of these factors can end up leading to a lack of mobility, strength, and flexibility, which results in less independence. This can mean that people become less active, more frail, and their body fat percentage can increase.
Studies have shown that people who exercise less can suffer from cognitive issues such as memory loss, mood, or confusion .
A lack of exercise can also have an impact on hearing, with more sedentary elderly people having poorer hearing than active ones .
Can Bodybuilding Help Improve Aging?
Whether bodybuilding can reverse the aging process remains to be seen, but there is no question that it can lead to an improved quality of life.
Those issues we mentioned before? Almost every single one can be improved by increasing physical activity. While the majority of studies tend to focus on low level exercise (walking, cycling, jogging etc) rather than bodybuilding-specific training, there is no reason why this would still not apply to a bodybuilding training program.
Lowering your body fat percentage and increasing muscle mass is going to help with frailty and mobility issues, strength training has been proven to increase bone density, and the cardio required for bodybuilding will help improve heart health and prevent heart attacks and strokes.
The risks of diabetes will also lessen the more you train, as strength training has a positive effect on insulin sensitivity.
Also your metabolism will be raised as exercising contributes around 20-30% of your total energy expended per day.
Supplementation for Bodybuilding
As we mentioned in the opening paragraph, when you age your requirements for protein would massively increase.
It is for this reason that so many studies look at the benefits of whey protein supplementation on the elderly. To combat the increased breakdown of muscle, and to compensate for the lower rate of muscle protein synthesis, an elderly person should be taking more protein than a sedentary middle-aged person.
This will help stimulate muscle protein synthesis and allow you to gain muscle even when you’re 70 years plus.
Other supplements that bodybuilders take which can help would be omega 3s which lower inflammation (which can help with joint health) and creatine which not only has benefits for exercise, but has also been shown to improve cognition.
The Dark Side of Bodybuilding
If bodybuilding is so effective at improving aging, then why do so many bodybuilders die at a relatively young age?
The answer is that they have been overdoing steroids which can weaken the heart.
This is an interesting subject because theoretically testosterone and human growth hormone supplementation can lead to many benefits for the elderly. Increased stimulation of muscle protein synthesis would help reverse the effects of age on muscle loss, it would also improve bone density, and increase muscle while lowering body fat.
Obviously there are downsides, and these drugs are banned for a reason. However it would definitely be worth seeing your doctor to have testosterone levels checked, as you age your levels naturally decline and many men would benefit from (legal) testosterone therapy.
So the dark side of bodybuilding is neither a cure for aging, but nor is it necessarily without merit. Whatever you think about it though, the good side of bodybuilding (calorie controlled diets, frequent exercise, and the social side) has more than enough benefits to be thought of as a good idea.
Good luck convincing your 85 year old grandma that bodybuilding is the solution though!
 Chien, M., Wu, Y., Hsu, A., Yang, R., Lai, J. 2000. Efficacy of a 24-week aerobic exercise program for osteopenic postmenopausal women. Calcified Tissue International 67: 443-448
 Arent, S., Landers, D., Etnier, J. 2000. The effects of exercise on mood in older adults: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Ageing & Physical Activity 8: 407-430
 Gispen, F., Chen, D., Genther, D., Lin, F. 2014. Association between hearing impairment and lower levels of physical activity in older adults. The American Geriatrics Society 62: 1427-1433