The older we get, the harder we have to work out to maintain our muscles. Men seem to have an easier time than women in maintaining muscle mass after age 50, but they too experience a loss of lean muscle as they grow older.
It turns out our bodies don’t just change how much they build muscle over 50. Women also use the proteins in food differently than men. Exercise alone can’t build lean muscle after 50: our diet becomes increasingly important.
Scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and at the University of Nottingham in the UK teamed up to study the differences in the way older men and women used protein to build their muscles.
The muscles of the women in the US/UK study absorbed much less protein than the men’s muscles. Scientists still don’t know why women use protein less efficiently after age 50, but we do know that after 50, getting enough protein is essential to maintain and potentially increase lean muscle mass.
The recommended daily intake (RDI) of protein for women over age 50 is 46 grams. The Institutes of Health recommend approximately .8 grams of protein per kilo of body weight. So, if you weigh 140 pounds, that is equivalent to 63.5 kilos. Multiply by .8 and you come out with 50.8 grams: higher than the RDI you will see on many medical advice websites.
A 2015 study conducted by researchers at the University of Arkansas School of Medical Sciences discovered that in the case of protein, “more is better” for older adults. Healthy women and men ages 52 to 75 ate either the standard protein RDI or twice that amount. The people who ate more protein built muscle better than those who ate less no matter how much or little they exercised.
This study indicated that eating two times the RDI of protein, or about 100 grams of protein a day, will help to improve muscle synthesis. Eating at least this much protein also supports your net protein balance, which is the difference between the protein you synthesize and the protein that’s broken down through exercise.
You may find some health-oriented advice websites saying you can “eat too much protein.” This advice pertains to eating massive amounts of protein, not the amounts that can fit into a healthy diet without excess calories.
If you’re in a calorie deficit, your body can break down the protein in your muscles to provide you with energy. If you’re seeking to build lean muscle, think in terms of shifting the calories you’re consuming toward the protein side of the equation. The easiest way to do this is to reduce simple carbs to the lowest level you can and increase protein and complex carbs while staying in your daily calorie or macro budget.
It’s more challenging to consume sufficient protein if you’re vegan, but it’s not impossible. Some high protein/lower calorie choices include:
If you’re used to eating meals with small amounts of protein and large amounts of carbs–like a big plate of pasta with a tiny amount of meat sauce–and want to build lean muscle, you need to switch the percentages around. Try combining protein sources with complex, healthy carbs like soybeans, lentils, quinoa, and prebiotics like oats and Greek Yogurt.
Try a fitness calculator like My Fitness Pal to track your calories and macros during the day, plan meals, and possibly begin a meal prep program to build lean muscle.
The other challenge in building lean muscle after 50 is performing strength-building exercises without getting hurt. Muscle growth occurs because you are using them. The growth process involves tiny stresses in your individual muscle fibers. After you work out, your body uses the protein you eat to repair the small tears.
Over time, the process results in muscle growth. Many studies have shown that increased muscle mass strengthens and boosts our metabolism. The challenge as we age is training wisely. Recovery time after normal workouts increases as we grow older, and so does the potential for injury.
Many women are concerned that weight training will build large, unattractive muscles, but resistance training has been linked to gains in lean, sexy muscle in all age groups of women. Cardio will help you to retain muscle, but at a slower rate than weight training. Balancing different types of physical activity while including at least some weight training seems to produce the best long-term results in muscle gains and retention of lean muscle. Weight training has also been shown to strengthen bones and reduce bone loss due to aging.
Another benefit to weight training has also emerged for older adults. As little as two days a week of upper body exercises with light weights improved memory and cognitive functioning.
A structured exercise program balancing cardio and general fitness activities with safe weight and circuit training will benefit lean muscle gain the most. If you walk and run a lot, consider adding weights to your fitness program at least two days a week for both mental and physical health benefits.
Keep hydrated! Muscles, like the rest of our body, are made up of water. It’s difficult to exercise when we’re dehydrated, so drink at least a pint of water before you work out, and keep plenty of water on hand.
Keep track of your micronutrients as well as macronutrients. Women who do a lot of cardiovascular exercise, whether extensive walking or running, can experience iron and other mineral deficiencies. Other micronutrients like magnesium and potassium, support muscle recovery and growth.
Pre-workout meals should be light and high in protein, with some healthy carbs. Light post-workout meals with protein and very light carbs have also been shown to help build lean muscle, but consider taking a protein-rich snack with you to the gym: the muscle-building effects fade starting 20 minutes after your workout is finished.
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