As we age, it becomes easier to lose muscle and harder to build it. I’m not necessarily talking about ripped abs and massive guns, but maintaining muscle mass as we age can be helpful for many reasons.
To start with, muscle is metabolically active, meaning the more muscle you have, the more energy you naturally burn each day. This makes it easier to prevent weight gain and it can assist with weight loss. Muscle is also integral to your overall balance and strength, helping you stay active and independent for longer.
There’s nothing we can do about getting old, but there’s a lot we can do to support good health such as looking after our muscles. These 5 tips are a good starting point if you would like to focus on maintaining muscle mass.
1. Use it or lose it. I know this seems like the obvious one, but it is super important! While any form of exercise is beneficial, resistance training with weights (or your body weight) supports muscle growth and maintenance as well as good bone health. Struggling to do something? Start small. Doing something once a week is better than doing nothing. It’s all about creating a consistent habit.
2. Eat protein. Muscles are built out of amino acids which are the building blocks of protein, so it makes sense that we would need to eat protein-rich foods in order to build or maintain muscle mass. Aim to include whole food sources of protein such as lean meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, legumes, nuts and soy products. Foods that are more processed such as deli meat, sausages, schnitzel and so on, still contain protein but are not as protein dense as whole foods. Whole foods will give you much more protein bang for your calorie buck.
What about protein supplements, are they for me? Check out this article for more information.
3. Eat protein frequently. Our body can only use around 30-40g of protein in a 2 hour period, therefore it is optimal to distribute our protein throughout the day for building and maintaining muscle mass. Aim to include a protein rich food at each main meal and some snacks, depending on your energy requirements. An example of this could be:
- Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs on toast
- Snack: coffee made with 1 cup of milk
- Lunch: Tinned tuna 95g in a baked potato, topped with cheese and a side of vegetables
- Dinner: 150g chicken breast, cooked in a curry with rice and vegetables
- Snack: 200g Greek yoghurt with fruit
4. Healthy fats. There is scientific research that suggests omega-3 fatty acids may enhance muscle maintenance. Either way, they should be included as part of a healthy balanced diet as they have many known health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties and improved heart health. Omega-3 rich foods include seeds (chia, flax), walnuts, oily fish (salmon, mackerel and sardines) and plant oils (flaxseed, canola, soybean). Check out this article for more ideas on how to include omega-3 in your diet.
5. Eat enough. In addition to strengthening exercises and adequate protein intake, muscles require adequate energy for maintenance and even more energy to build new muscle. If you are not eating enough for your requirements, your body may start breaking down muscle to use for energy. For a quick look at your energy requirements, there are various energy estimators available online as well as calorie tracking apps such as Easy Diet Diary.
These key principles are a great foundation and starting point if you are focusing on maintaining muscle mass. A dietitian can support you by providing more specific advice, such as what should you be eating, how much and how often.
For practical and tailored support to apply these principles to your life, see one of the experienced dietitians at The Healthy Eating Clinic.