Starting in your 30s, your muscles began shrinking, making you imperceptibly but steadily weaker. And now, as each year ticks by, you keep weakening—losing muscle mass at a rate of 0.5% to 1% a year—so that the loss of strength is more obvious. At some point, if it hasn’t happened already, you’ll be in your kitchen wrestling with a jar of spaghetti sauce and thinking, Why do they make these lids so much tighter than they used to?
Loss of muscle mass and strength isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s one of the most accurate indicators—for seniors and the middle-aged and the young—that disease and death may be in your near future.
Scary findings: Study after study shows that people with less strength are more likely to be hospitalized or to die of any cause, including heart disease, stroke, cancer and pneumonia, within a given period. Scientists haven’t figured out all the reasons that strength predicts health and well-being, but it’s not only because unhealthy people get weaker—in fact, a reduction in strength is a better predictor of dying from cardiovascular disease than is high blood pressure.
If you’ve told your doctor that you’re a bit weaker these days, and he/she said it’s a “normal part of aging”—ignore him. You can and should preserve and build muscle mass and strength at any age—it’s as important to health and longevity as keeping your arteries free of plaque and your cells free of cancer. And you can do it with a surprisingly simple three-pronged strategy—a routine of three simple strengthening exercises (no gym required)…the right diet…and three particular nutritional supplements that are proven muscle protectors. Here’s how to do it…
Preserve and build the muscles in your arms, legs, hips and back that you need for everyday strength and activity by doing these three exercises two or three times a week at home or anywhere else…
Body-weight squat. Stand directly in front of a stable, not-too-high chair with no armrest and with your back toward the chair seat and your feet shoulder-width apart. Slowly bend your legs, keeping your back straight and arms at your sides and knees over your toes, and lower yourself onto the chair. Then stand up slowly by reversing the motion. Do this 30 times. If you can’t do 30 repetitions at first (and many people can’t), start with what you can do, and over a period of days or weeks, work up to 30. (The same goes for the next two exercises.) If you can do even more, all the better—but 30 should be your minimum target.
Lunge. While standing, keep your upper body straight and your shoulders back, and step forward with one leg, lowering your hips until both knees are bent at a 90-degree angle. Return to the standing position. Do 15 times on each side for a total of 30.
Push-up or modified push-up. This oldie but goodie develops the upper back, shoulders, arms, chest and wrists. If you can’t yet do “full” push-ups (with only your hands and toes on the ground), start with modified push-ups in which your toes and knees are on the ground…or even with easier “wall push-ups” where you stand facing a wall and place your hands on the wall at shoulder height. Your ultimate goal is at least 30 full push-ups.
Also important: Aerobic exercise to maintain fitness. You don’t have to run miles and miles. A 25-minute jog or vigorous cycling just three times a week…or a 30-minute brisk walk five times a week will do the trick.
The ideal strategy for staying strong is like a three-level pyramid. The base of the pyramid—the essential factor—is exercise as described above, and the most important dietary component for your muscles is protein, the material out of which muscles are made. And believe it or not, despite the prevalence of meat in the typical Western diet, many Americans don’t get enough protein for the best possible muscle strength.
The government’s Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.36 grams (g) of protein per pound of body weight per day. But that level is the minimum, not the optimum. For preserving and building muscle, we need at least 50% more—0.54 g of protein per pound of body weight per day. And some studies indicate that 0.73 g per pound of body weight is even better. (More than that doesn’t build more muscle or strength.)
Problem: Most seniors get only two-thirds of the RDA, or about 0.24 g of protein per pound of body weight per day.
How much protein should you eat? Don’t go by the government’s RDA. Instead multiply your body weight in pounds by 0.54 to get the minimum number of grams per day…and multiply your body weight by 0.73 to get the maximum daily grams of protein likely to help your muscles. Then each day, aim to eat an amount in between those two results.
Example: A person who weighs 150 pounds would multiply 150 by 0.54 to get a minimum daily protein goal of 81 g…and multiply 150 by 0.73 to get a maximum useful daily protein amount of 109 g.
Equally important: Not only do you need enough protein—you need the kind that your muscles can easily use. The best muscle-building protein has two features. It is digestible—the amino acids that are the building blocks of protein are easily absorbed. Protein from meat, poultry, fish and other seafood, eggs and dairy is far more digestible than protein from plants. And the best protein for muscles has a high level of the amino acid leucine, which kick-starts muscle-building. The digestible sources of protein mentioned above also have the most leucine.
To optimize muscle-building, you also need to get protein at every meal, because unlike unused carbohydrates and unused fat, unused protein is not stored by the body for later use. Best strategy: Eat a highly digestible form of leucine-rich protein, chosen from the above sources, at every meal.
Examples: For breakfast, eat two eggs (12 g protein) and one-half cup of yogurt (6 g). For lunch, cut up four ounces of chicken breast (35 g protein) into a salad. For dinner, eat a six-ounce serving of high-quality (preferably organic) meat or fish (around 40 g protein) along with vegetables and whole grains. For a bedtime snack, have one-half cup of cottage cheese (12 g protein). Grand total: 105 g of protein, or just about the perfect amount to help preserve strength for our 150-pounder. Note: Some medical conditions, for example kidney disease, can make it dangerous to consume even moderate amounts of protein—check first with your physician.
In a recent study by my colleagues and me at McMaster University, we added three nutritional supplements to the diets of older men who also were engaged in an exercise program—and the supplements increased strength and muscle mass more than exercise alone (of course, check with your physician to make sure that any new supplement is safe for you)…
Whey protein. Milk has two main proteins—casein and whey. Whey is separated from casein during cheese-making, and whey protein powder is a supplement containing that by-product. It is unusually rich in leucine.
Suggested amount: If you are meeting your target range of daily protein from food as described above, you don’t need a protein supplement. If you fall a bit short, mix enough protein powder into the drink of your choice (many people use milk) to reach the total daily range of protein for your body weight as described above. (Check the label of your whey product to determine how much powder provides that much protein.) Don’t get more than 50 g of daily protein from whey powder—it is not a total substitute for protein-rich food. When buying whey powder, look for “NSF” on the label—NSF is a third-party organization that certifies products that have met rigorous manufacturing standards.
Best timing: Take whey protein soon after exercise, which maximizes muscle-building. If you can’t consume whey because of an allergy or some other reason, consider a soy protein supplement instead.
Creatine. This amino acid boosts the body’s ability to produce energy and helps build muscle. Recent finding: In a study published in Nutrients, just six days of creatine supplementation improved upper-body strength by nearly 3%. Suggested amount: Two capsules per day, in divided doses, that together total 4 g to 5 g.
Fish oil. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil (EPA and DHA) make your muscles more sensitive to protein, encouraging muscle-building. Suggested amount: 750 milligrams (mg) of EPA and 500 mg of DHA per day.