Building and maintaining muscle becomes more difficult as we age, but it is not impossible. In my book Second Chance at Health-Learn to Love Active Living and Clean Eating, I discuss exercise plans that can help you maintain muscle mass. I also have suggestions about diet changes that can prevent muscle loss during weight loss.
A question often asked by my patients is “How do I build muscle now that I am 55?” When I get asked that question I first clarify what they are asking. Do they feel like they are feeling weak or that they are concerned about their appearance? Identifying the difference helps me guide the conversation. If I discover that they are feeling weak, I will do further medical investigation as there are some serious health conditions that can result in weakness. If they have no health symptoms that would warrant further medical examination, I start a discussion about the natural physical changes that occur in middle age.
Physical Changes as We Age
There are many physical changes that occur during middle age such as decreased muscle mass and an increase in body fat deposits and this begins to occur at age 40. Ensuring an active lifestyle and a clean diet can delay the inevitable! Muscle mass loss is a natural process and loss of strength and functionality can come along with it. Maintaining muscle mass in middle age is important as it can help us move into our senior years with a decreased risk for injury. Along with our natural muscle mass loss, the increase in body fat in middle age can make it appear that we have less muscle than we actually do!
While there is no recommendation for a certain weight of muscle mass there is a recommendation for body fat. Increased body fat can result in an increased risk for many chronic conditions. I discuss the most common ones at length in my book Second Chance at Health: Learn to Love Active Living and Clean Eating that is going to be available mid August 2018, so make sure to pre-order!
Body Fat Percentage
Appropriate body fat percentages vary based on age and sex. They typically range from between 8%-19.9% for middle age males and 23%-33.9% for females. Middle age men and women often exceed those body fat percentages. I work in an industry with a large male population and I am often asked for advice on building muscle after they reach 55 years old. Typically they want me to tell them to take protein supplements and go to the gym to bulk up, but that is not what I tell them.
What I tell them is that they have enough muscle! It’s just all covered up with excess body fat! I recommend that we determine their body composition using the Tanita scale. The Tanita scale gives a reading of body fat percentage along with a recommended percentage, and when the body fat is within normal limits the muscle that is there is more readily visible which is really what people want.
If numbers reveal a high body fat percentage, then decreasing the body fat will reveal the muscles! Yes, muscle mass in middle age will tend to decrease due to changes in hormones; this affects both males and females, but the higher body fat will give the appearance of even less muscle.
Body builders call it shredding and most often this is done through serious dietary restriction. However, if you are not a body builder, the best diet that I have found to lose bod fat almost effortlessly is the ketogenic diet. Ketogenic diets are eating plans that utilize high fat, low carbohydrate and adequate protein amount to induce nutritional ketosis, which forces the body to mobilize fat for energy needs. This eating plan was initially formulated to manage refractory seizures and was subsequently found to have other benefits including managing excess fat stores in healthy adults. This plan is another option for middle-aged adults struggling with increased fat stores that occur due to hormone changes. Clean foods are the best options to eat when choosing this plan. The specific percentages for the macronutrients counted in a ketogenic diet, specifically fat, protein and carbohydrates will vary depending on your gender, age, height, weight and weight loss goal.
Maintaining Muscle Mass
To maintain muscle mass during weight loss it is important to monitor muscle mass weekly with the Tanita scale. A calorie reduced diet without enough protein can result in the body using the muscle mass for energy rather than the fat stores. If this happens, the Tanita scale data will show that fat loss is stalled and the weight loss is from muscle mass loss. This can be remedied by consuming an increased amount of protein, more to the 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram range (or about 20 grams of protein) protein a day. These additional protein calories will allow your body to access the stored fat for energy rather than utilizing its own muscle mass. You can choose lean animal protein, or protein shakes which are a convenient way to get the additional protein. Just watch out for them if they also have a high carbohydrate content- check the nutrition label.
Decreasing the amount of cardio exercise that one is doing can also stop the body’s consumption of muscle mass for energy while on a calorie restricted diet. When on a calorie restricted diet, limiting cardio/aerobic exercise to 30 minutes is adequate. Bodyweight calisthenics is a fantastic method to maintain muscle mass, strength and tone in middle age.
If muscle building remains to be a goal, then diet higher in protein along with a body building work out plan with weights. This type of information is beyond the scope of my expertise, and I recommend that you consult a personal trainer who is educated in body building for the middle aged person.
Adequate Protein to Maintain Muscle is Needed
For those just wanting to maintain muscle mass in middle age it is important to eat adequate protein, which is usually .8 grams per kilogram of body weight, but can be increased to 1.2 -1.5 grams per kilogram if you are already at .8 grams per kilogram and still losing muscle mass. The protein should be high quality, clean protein that is low to medium fat. Ensuring that you get enough vitamin D has also been shown in studies to be important in muscle mass maintenance.
In my opinion as a middle aged person revealing your muscle mass by losing the excess body fat and maintaining what you have is better for your health!
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