The importance of maintaining muscle mass
When we talk about diet and fitness, the emphasis is often placed on maintaining healthy body weight, and rightly so, as being overweight is a risk factor for many diseases, including those of the heart and certain cancers. However, maintaining mass is equally important as it can impact a person’s strength, energy, mobility, and overall health.
Why do we need muscle?
Lean body mass is everything other than fat. The most significant component is muscle which typically accounts for about 50% of your total body weight. During all stages of life, muscles play a vital role in contributing to physical strength, skin integrity, immunity, and wound healing. Muscle also plays a role in balance and movement, which can help protect against falls and injury (especially in older age) and improve performance for those involved in sport.
When do we start to lose muscle mass?
Muscle mass starts to decline from our mid-thirties onwards at about 5-10 percent per decade. In men this is a steeper loss of muscle as they generally have more, to begin with, compared to women. The loss of muscle mass starts to increase at a greater rate after the age of forty, and by the time you hit eighty, muscle loss is around 40% less than it was in your prime.
This loss is not just muscle but everything that comes with it, including strength which can deteriorate even quicker if you don’t take the proper steps to preserve it. Maintaining muscle mass will help you future-proof your mobility which is incredibly important as you get older. Research shows that becoming housebound can lead to a loss of around 4 percent of total muscle mass in just a couple of weeks.
Is it more challenging to maintain and build muscle beyond the age of 50?
- While it may take a little longer for the body to adapt, you can still build strength and muscle beyond the age of 50.
- A combination of the proper diet, which includes plenty of protein and strength training, is essential to build and maintain muscle mass and strength.
- It is a simple case of “use it or lose it”.
How do hormones affect muscle mass?
Hormonal changes associated with ageing may impact the rate at which muscle declines in women.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine showed that significant changes in muscle are part of everyday life for women in their 50s as the loss of oestrogen leads to a more rapid decline in mass. On average, during the transition from perimenopause to post-menopause (average of 1½ years), muscle mass decreased by around 1 percent. The researchers concluded that the change in muscle mass might not seem like much. Still, the short period that occurred is meaningful, mainly as muscles are important regulators of whole-body metabolism1.
This same study also showed that physical activity was positively associated with maintaining muscle mass during the menopause transition. Active women also had more muscle mass before and after menopause. While menopause alone can decrease muscle mass, staying physically active can help to slow down the change1.
How does sleep help with muscle mass?
Getting adequate sleep is just as important as what you eat or how much exercise you take for muscle mass maintenance. During sleep, your body repairs and builds muscle as protein is replenished faster, which helps repair the wear and tear put upon muscles during the day. Growth hormone also increases during sleep to help repair muscles in the body.
Aside from this, a lack of sleep can hamper the motivation to keep fit and eat well to support healthy body composition.
What can you eat to improve muscle mass?
Firstly, eating enough to support your body’s needs is essential. When people do not eat enough (for example, when they become ill or embark on a very restrictive weight loss diet), they can lose muscle mass as the body targets protein stores.
It’s important to include protein with every meal, so aim to eat around 1g protein per kg of body weight and spread this out across the day. This may consist of eggs for breakfast, chicken salad for lunch, and grilled fish for supper. You may also find protein shakes or snacks such as hummus an excellent way to get more protein into your day.
Does plant protein differ from animal protein?
- Recent findings have suggested that plant proteins are a helpful source but not as effective for building and maintaining muscle in older people.
- It’s vital to eat a wide variety of plant proteins to ensure adequate essential amino acids intake.
- Vegan protein shakes may be a helpful way to increase your intake, mainly if you are doing a lot of resistance exercise.
How effective are protein shakes?
Protein shakes are not the be-all and end-all but are a very convenient way to get a source of protein into your diet. Shakes may be particularly beneficial for those training regularly and older people or those trying to gain weight after illness. These shakes contain all the amino acids the body requires. Some are also fortified with additional vitamins and minerals to support overall health.
What else can you do to retain muscle mass?
The most important intervention against muscle loss is strength training, which helps build muscle and support the connection between nerves and muscle cells to maintain the muscle you have. It also helps improve the body’s response to dietary protein.
Maintaining muscle mass is often a case of “use it or lose it” when it comes to maintaining muscle mass. It is well known that diet plays a role in maintaining health after menopause. Ensuring you eat the correct type of food and keeping active while also including some resistance training will help keep you shape.