Here’s the stay-strong formula that’s been proven to work…
Have you ever stopped to think about what it is that makes people look old? Aside from superficial physical characteristics (such as gray hair and saggy jowls), the culprit that doesn’t get nearly enough attention is the decade-by-decade loss of muscle mass.
Age-related muscle loss, known as sarcopenia, changes more than just your appearance. It is a slow, insidious process that can rob you of 1% of your muscle mass each year after age 40. It makes it harder to lift things…and more challenging to walk and maintain your balance.
Perhaps the biggest threat is that sarcopenia makes it harder to stay physically active, leaving one at increased risk for at least 35 chronic diseases ranging from heart disease, stroke, diabetes and arthritis to erectile dysfunction, cognitive dysfunction, depression and certain types of cancer.
DIET COMES FIRST
Many people assume that simply hitting the gym will help them preserve their muscles. That’s simply not true. To maintain (or increase) muscle mass, you need both exercise and protein. In fact, dietary changes are the smartest place to start because they’ll give your body the raw materials that it needs for muscle maintenance. My advice…
Increase protein. The recommended dietary allowance calls for 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. (That’s about 51 g for a 140-pound woman…or 65 g for a 180-pound man.) But that’s not enough for people with sarcopenia. I recommend that adults with sarcopenia (or those at risk) get closer to 80 g to 90 g daily. Men and those who are physically active should check with their doctor about getting even more than this amount. Caution: People with kidney disease or other medical conditions may need to limit their protein intake. Ask your doctor for advice.
To make it easier: Don’t focus on total daily protein. Just make an effort to get 25 g to 30 g of protein with every meal—your body can only utilize about this amount of protein at a time to repair and build muscle tissue. If you need more, enjoy a protein-rich snack between meals.
Good protein sources: A four-ounce serving of lean chicken or pork will provide about 30 g of protein. You’ll get about 22 g from three ounces of salmon…11 g from one-half cup of pinto beans…and 12 g from one ounce of soy nuts.
Consider a supplement. I mainly recommend food-based sources of protein, but people who have special needs—those who have trouble chewing, for example, or those who don’t have the appetite for adequate meals—can take advantage of protein powders or bars. A scoop of plain whey protein powder (with added honey or fruit for flavor) contains 20 g to 30 g of protein. Important: Read the label, and avoid products that are high in sugar or fat. Choose one labeled “contains all essential amino acids.” Amino acids serve as building blocks for protein used in the body.
Always eat breakfast—and make it hearty. Many people skip it altogether…or make do with a bagel or a bowl of sweet cereal. Get in the habit of starting the day with a few eggs (two will provide about 12 g of protein), along with yogurt (11 g per cup of regular yogurt), almonds (6 g per ounce) or other protein-rich foods. Another good option: A breakfast burrito made with beef, beans, cheese and eggs.
Meat makes it easier. Animal-based proteins are complete—they contain all of the essential amino acids. People who eat meat don’t have to give protein a second thought as long as they meet the per-meal requirement of 25 g to 30 g.
But can you get enough protein if you’re a vegetarian or vegan? Absolutely—but you’ll have to be aware of the amino acids that are found in different foods, and you’ll generally need to consume larger amounts because plant foods contain less protein than meats.
Helpful hint: Eat complementary proteins—food combinations that provide all the essential amino acids needed to build protein in the body. For example, legumes combined with whole grains (such as lentil soup with whole-grain bread) will provide all the amino acids. So will combining dairy with grains or nuts (such as yogurt and granola).
Muscle loss occurs slowly, in part because people tend to reduce activity without realizing it. They start taking elevators instead of stairs…doing less yard work, etc.
Studies have shown that people who are physically active are less likely to develop sarcopenia—or they get it to a lesser degree—than those who are sedentary.
The best way to maintain and increase muscle mass is with protein—and resistance training.*
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends lifting weights two to three days a week—with eight to 15 repetitions of each exercise. My take: Resistance training doesn’t need to be limited to lifting weights. Exercise that uses body weight, such as workouts with resistance bands, yoga, Pilates or even taking the stairs, is helpful.
THE RIGHT WAY TO EXERCISE
Slow walks and easy gym workouts will help maintain muscle, but they won’t build it. To boost your strength and gain significant amounts of muscle, you need to do progressive resistance training (PRT). “Progressive” means that you’ll strive to lift heavier weights or increase the number of repetitions over time.
Example: When you can easily complete an exercise, it’s time to add additional sets. Rather than stopping at 15 repetitions, rest for two or three minutes, then do 15 more. Another choice: Increase the weight by 5% to 10% so that you can barely repeat the exercise eight times. Stay at that weight until you can easily do 15 repetitions. Then raise the weight again.
After about four or five months of PRT, people with sarcopenia will often add a few pounds of muscle, research has found. Once you’ve built muscle with PRT, talk to your doctor about a maintenance plan.
To get a postworkout boost: Have a glass of low-fat chocolate milk after intense exercise. It has about 24 g of carbohydrates and 8 g of protein—the 3:1 ratio that’s thought to be ideal for muscle growth. The carbs will quickly provide glycogen (to replenish postexercise energy), and the protein will jump-start muscle growth and repair.
*Check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.