Resistance training is recognised as a good strategy for retarding age-related declines in muscle mass and strength. Recent studies have also highlighted the potential value of protein intakes in excess of present recommendations. The roles that leisure-time physical activity and protein quality play in the preservation of skeletal muscle during ageing, and how such influences interact in free-living people are unclear. We sought to clarify these issues using data collected on 2425 participants aged ≥ 50 years in the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (2003–2006). We estimated subjects’ usual intakes of total protein and beef from two 24 h diet recalls and computed the appendicular skeletal muscle mass index from anthropometric measures. Participants self-reported their physical activity levels. Analyses accounted for demographic factors and smoking. The association between muscle-strengthening activity and the appendicular skeletal muscle mass index varied with protein intake. Furthermore, among obese subjects with protein intakes < 70 g/d, those who performed such activities had a lower appendicular skeletal muscle mass index than those who were physically inactive. Protein intakes above the present recommendations were associated with benefits to obese subjects only. The appendicular skeletal muscle mass index of non-obese subjects who performed vigorous aerobic activities was consistently high; in obese subjects, it varied with protein intake. High-protein intake was associated with a modest increase in the appendicular skeletal muscle mass index in non-obese, physically inactive subjects. The present findings reinforce the idea that muscle-strengthening exercise preserves muscle when combined with adequate dietary protein. Vigorous aerobic activity may also help.
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