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My muscles are shrinking. What should I do?

Updated: May 30, 2022

Why and how should we maintain muscle mass after 40

People begin to age when they turn 40, but the ageing process does not look the same for everyone. There are many factors that contribute to how well we age, including diet, life habits, exercise, job, or stress in our lives. There have been many discussions about being overweight in your 50s or 60s, but not many about being ‘under muscled’. Whether you carry too much fat in your body or not enough, what is more important for longevity is the skeletal muscle mass in the body.

Typically, we think we need muscle for movement and to perform daily activities, but we also need it as a metabolic regulator for glucose disposal or lipid (cholesterol) oxidation. According to Dr. Gabrielle Lyon, issues of metabolic regulations such as diabetes, high cholesterol or Alzheimer’s disease are largely controlled by the amount of muscle we have. Therefore, it is essential that we keep building muscle especially if we want to prevent sarcopenia – the loss of skeletal muscle function and mass associated with age.

When we start losing muscle mass, in our late 40s, we might also find that our cholesterol, insulin, blood sugar, and stress hormone (cortisol) increase, while sex hormones decrease. These changes in hormonal levels and the decline in growth hormones, as well as inflammation, chronic diseases and nutritional deficiencies can increase the risk of gradual muscle waste.

So, can we prevent it?

As we know, protein is necessary to build muscle and gain strength. However, after 50 this becomes more challenging due to the body's anabolic resistance. The skeletal muscle becomes less able to utilise protein. This means that when you are in your 50s you need more protein intake than you needed in your 20s to gain muscle mass. By consuming more protein and amino acids we stimulate the muscle tissue into growth. Recent studies suggest around 1g of protein per 1kg of body weight should be ingested per day.

Tip: Consume nutrient dense foods and at least 20g of high protein foods per each meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner). For example, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, quinoa, green peas, nuts, hemp seeds, peanut or almond butter are all high in protein.

However, is the increase of protein intake enough to maintain muscle mass?

No. We need to exercise in order to gain and maintain muscle mass.

If you have an office job or sedentary lifestyle, consider how you could manage prolonged periods of sitting. Can you try standing up more or take a break and walk up a few flights of stairs? Be physically active. Doing daily tasks, such as cleaning, walking or gardening is good, still, we need more than that to preserve healthy muscle mass.

Tip: Start with gentle aerobic exercise: cycling, swimming or climbing to support cardio-respiratory health. Then begin lifting weights.

Resistant training (weights, push ups, squats) is one of the best ways of reversing the loss of muscle mass as you age and there are other health benefits too.

Using resistance bands is another great way of putting your muscles under stress almost to wake them up so that they start rebuilding themselves.

By including aerobic and resistance exercise in your routine a few times a week and increasing the amount of protein intake you will be less likely to suffer injuries from falls in later life and by being physically stronger you are more likely to fend off illness.

Ensure to check with your doctor and get advice from a fitness trainer before starting weightlifting to avoid injury. Start slow then increase intensity as you get stronger.

Other important steps to avoid muscle shrinking:

  • reduce alcohol consumption to just a few units per week or give it up altogether. Alcohol depletes our body from nutrition and minerals, for example magnesium, which is essential to keep our muscles strong.

  • vary your exercise sessions: work out your lower body on one day, then upper the next day and perhaps cardio the following day. Then repeat. This way, you give your muscles time to recover and rebuild.

  • sleep 7-8 hours a night. It is essential to get enough sleep for our body to repair and replenish.

  • eat balanced diet full of vegetables and unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Avoid fast food and ready made supermarket meals.

  • reinforce positive body image. Be proud of yourself after an exercise session. Don't beat yourself up for not having a six-pack. Exercising will make you stronger, be happy with your achievements.

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