Background: Physical activity may be a way to increase and maintain fat-free mass (FFM) in later life, similar to the prevention of fractures by increasing peak bone mass.
Objectives: A study is presented of the association between FFM and physical activity in relation to age.
Methods: In a cross-sectional study, FFM was analyzed in relation to physical activity in a large participant group as compiled in the International Atomic Energy Agency Doubly Labeled Water database. The database included 2000 participants, age 3-96 y, with measurements of total energy expenditure (TEE) and resting energy expenditure (REE) to allow calculation of physical activity level (PAL = TEE/REE), and calculation of FFM from isotope dilution.
Results: PAL was a main determinant of body composition at all ages. Models with age, fat mass (FM), and PAL explained 76% and 85% of the variation in FFM in females and males < 18 y old, and 32% and 47% of the variation in FFM in females and males ≥ 18 y old, respectively. In participants < 18 y old, mean FM-adjusted FFM was 1.7 kg (95% CI: 0.1, 3.2 kg) and 3.4 kg (95% CI: 1.0, 5.6 kg) higher in a very active participant with PAL = 2.0 than in a sedentary participant with PAL = 1.5, for females and males, respectively. At age 18 y, height and FM-adjusted FFM was 3.6 kg (95% CI: 2.8, 4.4 kg) and 4.4 kg (95% CI: 3.2, 5.7 kg) higher, and at age 80 y 0.7 kg (95% CI: -0.2, 1.7 kg) and 1.0 kg (95% CI: -0.1, 2.1 kg) higher, in a participant with PAL = 2.0 than in a participant with PAL = 1.5, for females and males, respectively.
Conclusions: If these associations are causal, they suggest physical activity is a major determinant of body composition as reflected in peak FFM, and that a physically active lifestyle can only partly protect against loss of FFM in aging adults.
Keywords: age; body composition; doubly labeled water; energy expenditure; physical activity level.
© The Author(s) 2021. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Nutrition.