Building Muscle at Any Age
The benefits of maintaining muscle mass at any age cannot be underestimated.
Muscle is involved in brain function in a big way. Muscle directly communicates with the brain through chemicals and messengers such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). These chemicals are released every time we exercise. So exercise not only makes your muscles bigger, it makes your brain bigger and improves cognitive performance, too.(1) The loss of muscle mass that occurs with aging, known as sarcopenia, is highly correlated with loss of cognitive function, another reason to stay strong!
More muscle burns more fat. Those little organelles in the muscle called “mitochondria” are your energy powerhouses and by exercising muscle (even one bout of exercise) you make more of them, leaving you with more energy and a healthy metabolism. Building muscle mass is essential for weight loss, longevity and prevention of metabolic disease like diabetes. It is becoming clear that the obesity epidemic is in large part due to an increasingly sedentary society.
"Can I increase muscle at any age?" "Yes!"
The common reasons for low muscle mass include:
a diet too low in protein
lack of effective exercise regimens
reduced ability to digest protein as we age
How much protein do you need to build muscle?(2)
Unless you are completely sedentary, the USDA’s recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight is likely not enough for optimal health and fitness.
Adults looking to build muscle and strength need at least 0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. This works out to at least 90 grams of protein daily for a 150-pound person. **
Here are some tips from Danka Lekovic, NASM certified nutrition coach, on how to get more protein into your diet:
Consume leucine rich foods such as whole organic eggs, fish, organic poultry and grass-fed beef and dairy. Leucine, along with isoleucine and valine, is a main driver in muscle protein synthesis and recovery.
Aim for 20-30 grams of protein per meal. Increase the protein content of your meal by adding legumes, nuts and seeds, greens, cruciferous vegetables, mushrooms or avocado to your main protein dish.
hummus with vegetables
an ounce of cheese
unsweetened Greek yogurt or cottage cheese
a hard-boiled egg
a handful of nuts or seeds
Try this delicious, simple and high protein recipe: Dairy-Free Pesto Salmon
If you are having difficulty fitting in the recommended amount of protein, consider using a protein powder supplement that uses either grass-fed whey (We like Levels whey protein powder) or an organic plant-based protein such a pea, hemp or rice protein powder such as Nutribiotic brand, made without fillers or sweeteners. See that it contains 1-3 grams of leucine.
Whey protein is a “fast” absorbing protein and is an excellent choice to consume in a post-exercise shake combined with a carbohydrate such as fruit and a healthy fat like nuts or avocado. Most whey powdered supplements are low in lactose and generally well-tolerated. Casein, is a “slow” absorbing protein that is a good choice at bedtime to feed muscles overnight while we sleep and fast. If you can tolerate dairy, choose cottage cheese or unsweetened Greek yogurt for this reason as they are high in casein.
“Performing resistance type exercises is what actually builds muscle, but there must be enough available dietary protein to support the building and maintenance of new muscle.”
Performing resistance exercise will significantly counter declines associated with the (un)natural aging process:(3)
Do resistance types of exercise utilizing bands, machines, dumbbells or using body weight at least three times per week. Here is a webinar on MG and exercise that I did with A.C.E. certified personal trainer, Julie Hossack.
Engage the help of a personal trainer or physical therapist to establish a safe and effective program where you progress appropriately.
Do gradual, progressive increases in resistance. If you can easily perform 10 reps of any exercise it will not build muscle. You must progress the weight to see results.
Have your body fat percentage measured. This is a more valuable indicator of health than weight or BMI.
Another pitfall to building muscle is the lack of adequate protein breakdown and absorption in the digestive tract. This is a potential issue with illness, age and medications.
Here are some tips for improving digestion of protein:
1. Chew your food thoroughly
2. Avoid acid reducing medications, i.e. acid blockers or proton pump inhibitors. We need the hydrochloric acid in the stomach to digest the protein.
3. Apple Cider Vinegar – Try adding 1 teaspoon of raw apple cider vinegar to warm water and sipping it with your protein meal. This may enhance protein digestion and reduce heartburn or other reflux symptoms.
4. Fermented Foods and Drinks – Including fermented foods and drinks with your protein meals provides enzymes that enhance protein digestion.
** Can I eat too much protein?: People often fear that a higher-protein diet can cause kidney problems, decreased bone health, and even cancer. But experts say if you’re otherwise healthy, observing sensible limits, and sourcing your protein wisely, there’s little cause for concern. However, check with your physician if you have any type of kidney disease before increasing protein intake.
1. Gomes-Osman J, Cabral DF, Morris TP, et al. Exercise for cognitive brain health in aging: A systematic review for an evaluation of dose. Neurol Clin Pract. 2018;8(3):257-265.
2. Otsuka R, Kato Y, Tange C, et al. Protein intake per day and at each daily meal and skeletal muscle mass declines among older community dwellers in Japan. Public Health Nutr. 2020;23(6):1090-1097.
3. Liao CD, Chen HC, Huang SW, Liou TH. The Role of Muscle Mass Gain Following Protein Supplementation Plus Exercise Therapy in Older Adults with Sarcopenia and Frailty Risks: A Systematic Review and Meta-Regression Analysis of Randomized Trials. Nutrients. 2019;11(8).