It's vital for your health.
Strong is the new skinny – but it’s also the new healthy, brainy and long-living. Helen Foster discovers why building muscle is so important.
You may already know that once we pass the age of 30 the amount of muscle we have starts to decline – it falls by roughly 3-8 per cent a decade. You probably also know that muscle burns kilo joules and so as the levels decline, so does your metabolic rate.
It’s this that accounts for the weight gain so many of us find starts in middle age. But muscle decline has less obvious internal consequences which have a major impact on health.
“As the level of muscle in your body falls so does your strength and power; this aﬀects your functional ability, how well you move, and in time, your balance,” says exercise physiologist Luke Michael from Sydney’s Measure Up. “Loss of muscle strength is one of the main causes of falls as we get older."
Building muscle is also associated with stronger bones, and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Strength training can actually help reverse cognitive decline that has occurred with age. “Parts of people’s brains actually get bigger as they train,” says Dr Yorgi Mavros from the University of Sydney.
Also, the greater your muscle mass the lower your risk of death. Dr Arun Karlamangla from UCLA has found a link between the amount of muscle people have as they age and how long they live. So the stronger you are, the better.
Build Me Up
For optimum ageing you need to build up some muscle – and it’s better to do it in your 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s than wait until you’re 60 plus. “As you get older your ability to synthesize muscle falls and it’s tricky to build the same amounts, even with a very intensive workout program,” says Michael.
If you’re pre-menopausal you’ll also have a hormonal helper – estrogen. This is a muscle-building hormone and 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,” says Michael.
Boost your results
While any exercise will challenge your muscles, when it comes to actually building them you need to be lifting weights. Every time you lift and lower a weight you put force on the muscle and it gently tears. When your body attempts to rebuild this it tries to prevent further damage by thickening the fibers, creating stronger, bigger muscles that protect your health. Pretty much any kind of strength training gets this result but you can work with your body to get optimum results.
Lift heavy weights
“The right weight is one you can lift no more than eight to10 times,”says Dr Mavros. “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 your session and train for at least two sessions a week.
Train during your period
Estrogen levels are high at this point which means you build the most muscle for your efforts, say researchers at Umea University in Sweden. The hormone boost lasts from the day your period starts to ovulation roughly two weeks later.
Lower your weights slowly
Dr Mavros says it doesn’t matter what speed you lift the weight, but for maximum muscle growth ensure you lower the weight back down slowly. “The added stress this causes in this part of the movement is fundamental in helping muscle grow,” he says.
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,” says Michael.
The recommended daily intake for women is 1.2 to 1.5g of protein per kilogram of your body weight – ideally with a portion at each meal. For a 65kg woman that means eating 78 to 97.5g 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 some green 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 – that 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 as much stronger and with greater muscle mass after a 12-week training program than stressed ones. “It’s also important to get good sleep,” says Michael. “Sleep is when your muscles build and grow.”
Don't yo-yo diet
“It’s one of the fastest ways to lose muscle as you age,” says Dr Mavros. “If you do try and lose weight make sure you’re strength training a long side your diet. That can help protect your muscle mass and ensure more of the weight you lose is fat.”
Walk on the beach
“You can increase the amount of muscle you build doing cardio workouts by adding the load you put on the muscle while you move,” says Ryan Ebert from Health Logic Physio therapy in Melbourne. “Walking or running up hills or walking on soft sand will do the trick.”
Use your body weight
"Moving muscles in ways that create resistance can build some muscle,”says physio therapist Kusal Goonewardena from Melbourne’s Elite Akademy. “Try lifting your arms above your head or doing squats or calf raises while the kettle boils.”
What if you can't work out?
Sometimes it’s just not possible to exercise– maybe you’re injured or laid up in bed after an illness or surgery. This is a peak danger time for losing muscle mass as muscles need stimulation daily to maintain their size, but don’t panic because there are still things you can do.
- Use isometric moves: “These are small contractions of the muscle that work it in isolation which is important if you can’t put pressure on a joint or move about very much,” says Goonewardena. Try moves like simply tightening your bicep without moving the rest of your arm, or tightening the muscle in your bottom or at the top of your thigh. Repeat for 30 to 60 seconds, working as many muscles as you can safely use daily.
- Visualize the muscle working. “This is a technique we regularly use with elite athletes who can’t move after surgery but who need to get back into training quickly– it actually does help keep the muscle strong,” says Goonewardena. In fact, in one US study where people were asked to imagine moving their bicep muscle, strength improved by 13.5 per cent. Try three to five minutes daily.
- Work what you can move: “If you’ve had a leg operation, you might not be able to move your leg, but you could do free weight moves like bicep curls or shoulder raises in bed,” says Ebert.
- Ask the doctor what you can do: “We now know that getting on your feet as fast as possible is really the key to maintaining muscle, so move as soon as your doctor says it’s okay,” says Ebert.