One of the things I love over Christmas and New Year is watching The World’s Strongest Man contest. It’s brilliant to see these guys carrying cars and tossing kegs.
Dr Gabrielle Lyon did a podcast with Dr Rangan Chatterjee and said that if we gain more muscle, we can protect our skeleton, improve mobility and balance, burn more fat, lower our risk of disease, increase our energy levels and live longer, better lives.
The WHO definition of healthy ageing is “to retain functional independence”. So it’s the strength rather than the size of muscles that matters and the new drugs that only increase muscle mass do not bring benefits.
Our muscle mass reaches its peak in our mid-30s and then goes down by about 1% per year. For over 60s, it’s been found (WHO) that the death rate is halved in the strongest 1/3 of the population. If you didn’t get an exercise habit when you were young, it becomes more and more important as you get older.
Muscles store energy as glycogen, a type of sugar. With less muscle, there’s less storage space for sugar and this can change your metabolism making insulin resistance and diabetes worse. Muscles also burn energy all the time even when you’re resting, so increasing your muscle is great for weight loss.
Hospitalization presents another danger. 10 days of bed rest causes a muscle loss of 2% in a young person but 10% in an elderly person. That’s 10 years of muscle loss in just over a week – and very hard to get back. Accelerated muscle loss in the elderly is called sarcopenia and is a cause of frailty, falls and death.
Even though muscle is important in so many ways, weight training remains much less popular than aerobic exercise. Gyms can put people off – the costs, the equipment, the other people that go there…(!)… Luckily, it’s easy enough to do resistance training at home, either with some simple hand weights (eg dumbbells, tins or bottles) or your body weight (eg press-ups, lunges and squats).
Large weights put people off and can cause injury. Fortunately you can get a similar benefit by using small weights and doing the exercises very slowly. Women worry about getting big muscles but it’s very unlikely. I’ve been weight training for 40 years and my upper arms still measure only 10″ (25cm) like they always have.
Best of all is to do a mix of exercise types. Gabrielle recommends resistance training at least four days a week plus high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Dan John suggests everyone >50 should check that they’re able to stand on one foot for 10 seconds, so a 30-sec deep squat, hang from a bar for 30s, get off the ground without using their hands and do a 5 foot standing long jump. Brendan Egan recommends 2 sessions of strength work and 3 sessions of aerobic a week plus stretching/flexibility – I once heard Donny Osmond say, “as you get older it’s important to stay limber.”
Another big hazard is sitting for long periods. Just stand up every 20-30 minutes to engage with gravity – it’s called non-exercise movement (see Joan Vernikos, Sitting Kills) and brings big benefits for something so simple.
Brendan concluded from his studies that it’s never too late to start exercising and everyone can gain strength. Find a gym or personal trainer to advise you if you’ve never done it before or look at YouTube and people like Joe Wicks. Anything you do is good and if you start doing more than you’ve been doing before, that’s great so have a go and feel good about getting moving.
We all need protein, and not just for building muscles. Protein is made of amino acids and these building blocks are also essential for making your bones, enzymes and hormones. There are ways of calculating how much you need if you’re willing to go to the trouble. Dr Stuart Phillips believes the sweet spot is ~1.2g of protein per kg of body weight. The modern carb-heavy diet mean we get little protein except in the evening meal.
I encourage people to include three things in every meal: plants, proteins and fats. Most breakfasts are not much more than sugar and really class as deserts so it’s the meal with most scope for improvement eg by adding some egg, ham or fish. In Norway they serve herrings done 3 ways. This morning I had mackerel (protein) with half a pear (plant), some seeds (fat) and half a slice of buttered (fat) toast.
If you don’t want protein in your breakfast, you could add more to your lunch, like this salad. There’s a threshold of about 20g to trigger muscle building (3 eggs or a couple of ounces of meat). In studies of older adults, protein and exercise, Brendan Egan found the key amino acid is leucine (whey is a good source) and that omega 3 fats increase the effect suggesting that animal proteins are better. On the other hand I just saw a pubmed abstract of a 10-week study showing similar results from exercise with plant only or mixed omnivorous protein.
There’s no need to go mad though. If you eat more protein than you need, or you eat it without exercising, your body will turn it into carbohydrate and burn it or turn it into fat, which is a waste of such a high quality food when we all get more than enough carbohydrate already.
Older people will need more protein in each meal just to meet their basic needs. Appetite decreases with age often leaving people getting too little. At the same time, absorption decreases so it’s a double whammy.
When trying to build or retain muscle, timing matters too. Brendan’s trials found that eating a high-protein snack 20 minutes after exercising is best. After 2h the muscle-building effect is lost.
Protein source foods bring other valuable nutrients with them and the type matters as well as the amount. Animals fed on grass produce superior fatty acid profiles to animals kept indoors and fed on grains and soya. If you don’t eat animal foods you are probably deficient in vitamin B12, iron, sulphur, creatine, carnosine, taurine, long chain omega 3 fats (EPA and DHA), collagen and conjugated linoleic acid. There are supplements available. Fake meats should be avoided by everyone. They usually contain high levels of harmful omega 6 fats as well as chemicals (not necessarily listed on the label) to make them look and taste fit to eat. As always, eat real food.
Top tip – Do resistance exercise and include protein in your meals.