Whether you want to look better in a tank top, hoist your suitcase into the car with ease, or burn more calories faster, muscle matters. But, unfortunately, it naturally begins to decline well before we hit the “Big 40.”
“Women start to lose about 1 percent of their muscle every year by the age of 30,” as a result of declines in estrogen, testosterone, and other hormones, says Kristin Burgess, a registered dietitian and trainer with Greenwood Athletic Club in Greenwood Village. For men, it begins closer to 40. And it only gets worse with age, with men and women losing as much as 15 percent each decade after age 50, and as much as 30 percent after age 70, research shows.
The consequences of this natural decline, called sarcopenia, are serious: Muscle, unlike fat, is metabolically active, meaning it burns through calories even when we are at rest. The less muscle we have, the harder it is to keep weight off, even if we eat the same amount of calories, or fewer, as we did when we were younger.
“I have people come in all the time and say the diets that once worked for them just don’t work anymore,” says Jade Teta, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and author of “The New Metabolic Effect Diet: Eat more. Workout Less. And Lose Weight While You Rest,” (Harper Collins.)
Less muscle also tends to mean more visceral fat around the heart, liver and other organs, which has been associated with greater risk of heart disease and cancer. And people with low muscle tone tend to lack energy. “A person who is at their ideal body weight or even 5 pounds over but is at an ideal range of body fat percentage is going to have way more energy than someone who is at the same weight but has more fat and less muscle,” Burgess says.
What if the thought of endless reps on the weight machines makes you cringe? Don’t fret. Diet and fitness experts say there are many other steps aging baby boomers can take to preserve muscle and even recover what they’ve lost. Here’s a look:
Don’t over-exercise: While many assume the best way to stay lean and fit is to exercise more, slogging away on the treadmill day after day can wreak havoc on your lean muscle, leading to what Teta calls the “skinny fat” syndrome – characterized by loose, sagging skin and a hollow-looking face. He notes that excess cardio – particularly long, low-to-mid intensity activities like running or cycling – can boost stress hormones like cortisol, which prompt the body to burn muscle, instead of fat, for fuel. Burgess notes that good nutrition (see below) can minimize this. But as a general rule, shoot for 2-3 cardiovascular workouts per week and keep them under an hour, while spending your other 2-3 workouts on strength training.
Eat early and often: Just as over-exercising can eat away at muscle, so can skipping meals. “After about four hours our body goes into slight starvation mode and instead of trying to burn fat, it stores the fat and starts breaking down muscle to be burned as energy,” says Burgess. She recommends eating something within 30 minutes of waking up and eating every three hours. Also, plan your meals and snacks well to get a good mix of lean protein (which builds muscle), slow-burning carbohydrates like whole grains (which help usher that lean protein into the muscle cells), and heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fats (think avocados, olive oil, flax seed, and almonds) which help flush cholesterol out of the body and keep visceral fat in check, improving your body fat-to-muscle ratio. Also, drink lots of water (half your body weight in ounces, not including what you drink while working out). “Muscle is made up of 77 percent water,” she says.
Eat protein, but not too much, after exercise: With each hard workout we break down tiny muscle fibers, which grow bigger and stronger as they repair themselves. To do that, they need protein. “Protein is made of amino acids, just like our muscle fibers,” explains Burgess. She recommends taking in some sort of protein within 30 minutes of a moderate to intense workout (7 or above on a scale of 1 to 10). But don’t overdo it. Protein can be loaded with calories, and too much of it can actually worsen health by taxing the kidneys. For a post-workout snack, shoot for 15 grams for a 140 pound woman or 25 grams for a 170-pound man. In total, throughout the day, eat roughly half your body weight in grams. For instance, a 130 pound woman would eat 65 grams of lean protein per day.
Sleep well and don’t stress: Stress, like skipping meals or overdoing cardio, boosts muscle-eating hormones like cortisol, says Teta. On the flip side, sleep is key for “resetting” your hormone balance and promoting muscle-building hormones like Human Growth Hormone and testosterone. One 2010 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that while people on a low-cal diet lose the same amount of weight whether they sleep 5.5 hours a night or 8, those who sleep less lose mainly muscle instead of fat.
Mix it up: Burgess recommends that everyone get 2 to 3 thirty to 45-minute strength workouts per week, addressing each of the muscle groups (legs, chest, biceps, triceps, shoulders, stomach, and back). If you’re put off by dumbbells, consider a high-intensity yoga class. Or, throw in an occasional interval session (periods of intense activity, like sprinting around a track, broken up by periods of slow, active rest, like walking around a track). Research shows that interval training – unlike slow, steady cardiovascular training – can produce a metabolic “after burn” effect, in which the body continues to burn fat for hours, improving muscle-to-fat ratio. “This is the reason sprinters have less fat and are more muscular than marathon runners,” writes Teta.
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