This article was adapted from a combination of speeches given at the European Sports Science Conference 2018, most notably Timmons James (UNIVERSITY COLLEGE DUBLIN, IRELAND).
Protein supplementation is an intensively studied, reliable manner to augment increases in muscle mass that occur with training and speed recovery. Its potential to improve muscle strength and size has particular relevance to aging adults who may experience falls and other injuries due to reduced muscle mass. As exercise alone is insufficient to preserve muscle mass into old age due to a progressive decline in the adaptivity of muscles to strength training after mid-life, nutritional supplementation in combination with training may represent an important strategy to achieved adequate increases in muscle mass and protect the safety of older individuals. Protein has been repeatedly demonstrated to augment the improvements in strength and muscle size that occur with strength training in aging adults. Protein supplements, however, may be rejected by such individuals for its expensive cost or concerns regarding its safety (though research has not demonstrated any in healthy individuals). This bears the question of whether alternatives exist.
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Can older adults achieve improved adaptation rates by consuming greater amounts of protein-rich food rather than protein supplements?
An investigative team from the University College Dublin sought to answer this question. They recruited a sample of 56 older adults with an average age of 69 years and randomly assigned them to one of three groups: a supplementation group, an exercise group, and an exercise + supplementation group. The supplementation group increased protein consumption during breakfast, lunch, and dinner such that 3 g of leucine-rich protein was consumed with each meal. Leucine is an amino acid that is thought to stimulate muscle protein synthesis over and above its role as a muscle protein building block like other amino acids. The exercise group completed 24 minutes of combined aerobic and resistance training (12 minutes each) three times weekly. Both the supplementation and exercise intervention was completed for 12 weeks. In the exercise + supplementation group, participants completed both of these protocols.
Comparison of post-intervention to baseline measures, demonstrated that consuming leucine-rich food increased body mass in both supplementing groups by 1% of total mass. Body composition imaging demonstrated this increase in the exercise + supplementation group was attributable to increases in lean mass (which comprises muscle and bone mass) whereas it was attributed to fat mass in the supplementation alone condition. By comparison, no significant increase in mass was detected in the exercise alone condition. Scores on a 1 repetition maximum bench and leg press test as well as on an aerobic fitness test improved in both the groups who complete exercise during the intervention window. Improvements in leg press strength improvement ~20% more in the exercise + supplementation group as compared to the exercise alone group.
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What’s the verdict?
Exercise combined with supplementation improved muscle mass and leg strength to a greater extent than the exercise alone intervention despite supplementation being achieved through leucine-rich food rather than a commercially purchased supplement powder. While commercial supplements were not directly compared against leucine-rich food and we cannot suggest whether one is superior, it seems that elevated consumption of food high in protein also augments increases in muscle size and strength that occur with training. Future research will be required to directly compare the two strategies, but for now, eating a high protein diet should be encouraged in resistance training older individuals unwilling to take protein supplements.
Casperson, S. L., Sheffield-Moore, M., Hewlings, S. J., & Paddon-Jones, D. (2012). Leucine supplementation chronically improves muscle protein synthesis in older adults consuming the RDA for protein. Clinical Nutrition, 31(4), 512-519.
Cermak, N. M., de Groot, L. C., Saris, W. H., & van Loon, L. J. (2012). Protein supplementation augments the adaptive response of skeletal muscle to resistance-type exercise training: a meta-analysis–. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 96(6), 1454-1464.
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