You probably already know once we pass age 30 the amount of muscle we have starts to decline – it drops by roughly 3-8% a decade. You probably also know muscle burns kilojoules and so as the levels decline, so does your metabolic rate.
This is what accounts for the weight gain many of us find starts in middle age. But muscle decline also has other internal consequences which have a major impact on health.
“As the level of muscle in your body falls, so does your strength and power, and this affects your functional ability – how well you move – and in time, your balance,” says Australian exercise physiologist Luke Michael. “Loss of muscle strength is one of the main causes of falls as we get older.”
Building muscle, on the other hand, is associated with stronger bones and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s. In fact, strength training can actually help reverse cognitive decline that’s occurred with age.
“Parts of people’s brains actually get bigger as they train,” says the University of Sydney’s Dr Yorgi Mavros. Also, the greater your muscle mass, the lower your risk of early death.
Dr Arun Karlamangla from University of California, Los Angeles in the US has found a link between the amount of muscle people have as they age and how long they live. So the bottom line is: the stronger you are, the better.
While you can start strength training under the correct supervision at any age, for optimum ageing you need to build up muscle – and it’s better to do it in your twenties, thirties, forties and fifties than to wait until you’re 60 plus.
“As you get older your ability to synthesise muscle falls and it’s tricky to build the same amount, even with a very intensive workout programme,” Michael says.
If you’re female and pre-menopausal you’ll also have a hormonal helper – oestrogen. This is a muscle-building hormone, so training while it’s still circulating in your system will produce better results than you can achieve after menopause.
“What you’re aiming to do is build the biggest reserve of muscle possible so that when that natural decline begins, you’ve got a healthy buffer,” Michael says.
Boost your results
When it comes to actually building muscle you need to lift weights. Every time you lift and lower a weight you put force on the muscle and it gently tears. When your body rebuilds this, it tries to prevent further damage by thickening the fibres, creating stronger, bigger muscles. Pretty much any kind of strength training gets this result but working with a trainer who can formulate a programme for your body will help you to achieve the best results.
Lift heavy weights
“The right weight is one you can lift no more than eight to 10 times,” Dr Mavros says. “Those pictures you see of smiling women lifting 1kg weights – that doesn’t make any real difference to strength or health.”
You should also work as many different areas of the body as possible during at least two strength training sessions a week.
Train during your period
A woman’s oestrogen levels are high during her period, which means you build the most muscle for your efforts, say researchers at Sweden’s Umeå University.
The hormone boost lasts from the day your period starts to ovulation roughly two weeks later.
Lower weights slowly
It doesn’t matter what speed you lift the weight, but for maximum muscle growth ensure you lower the weight back down slowly, Dr Mavros says. “The added stress this causes in this part of the movement is fundamental in helping muscle grow.”
Eat enough protein
Protein is the building block of muscle. “But as you get older your ability to use protein to make muscle starts to decline so you need to consume more to give your body the raw materials it needs,” Michael says.
The recommended daily intake for women is 1,2-1,5g of protein per kilogram of body weight, ideally with a portion at each meal.
For a 65kg woman this means eating 7897,5g of protein daily. A 100g chicken breast contains roughly 31g of protein, an egg has 6g, 100g of canned tuna has 26g and 100g of yoghurt has 10g.
Add a few greens and tomatoes or apples
Both contain substances that help prevent age-related muscle wasting. It’s unclear exactly how much gets results, but eating a portion of each daily will help.
Watch out for stress
The stress hormone cortisol is a catabolic hormone, which means it breaks down muscle when it’s released. This can make a big difference to your results – in one trial, calm exercisers ended up much stronger and with greater muscle mass after a 12-week training programme than stressed ones.
“It’s also important to get good sleep,” Michael says. “Sleep is when your muscles build and grow.”
Use your body weight
“Moving muscles in ways that create resistance can build some muscle,” physiotherapist Kusal Goonewardena says. “Try lifting your arms above your head or doing squats or calf raises while the kettle boils.”