Nutritional secret to building muscle in your 40s and beyond
Increasing protein intake with your training regime will help retain muscle strength
We see it all the time. The busiest place in the gym is the mirror next to the weights — plenty of flexing, a few selfies and a protein shake thrown in for good measure.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to tell you that you need to go down that route — although you do need to start paying attention to your muscles. In a sense, your muscles are the forgotten man of mainstream health coverage: the media tends to obsess over body fat, looking lean, and reducing overall weight. However, our muscles are key to keeping us moving freely throughout our busy lives. We neglect them at our peril.
In recent years, there has been increasing research on the muscle, and how protein supports growth and repair, both for athletes in their prime and non-athletes at different stages of life. As with all the performance nutrition principles I’m discussing in this column, to get the most from your body relies on exercise and nutrition working together. Exercise is king and nutrition is queen. This is one relationship to invest time in.
Last month, I discussed the type and amount of fuel our body requires throughout the day. The analogy I used was that of a car: essentially, you need to fuel your body for the journey it takes each day, without running out of petrol before returning home or ending the day with a surplus in the tank.
This month, the car analogy can come out of the garage again, because we are focusing on the maintenance and repair of your vehicle.
Like an ageing car, the body becomes less efficient as we move through our thirties. A key part of this physiological decline is the loss of muscle mass and function — a process known as sarcopenia. You may feel fine now, but this gradual decline in muscle strength and mass can result in the reduced ability to your favourite activities as you get older (playing golf, going on a weekend run, or even just walking around town). That’s why fighting the ageing process, using exercise and nutrition, should start as soon as possible.
The NHS’s physical activity guidelines for adults aged 19-64 was recently updated to include (at least) two resistance training sessions a week, where all the major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms) are worked.
But training on its own isn’t enough. The second key component of muscle growth (also called muscle protein synthesis), is eating enough protein. Foods containing protein are digested, broken down into small building blocks known as ‘amino acids’ and these blocks are then used by the muscle to repair and build new tissue
Around the clock
Your muscles undergo constant change over 24 hours, breaking down and rebuilding, so your daily protein intake needs to be sufficient to meet this demand and maintain your overall muscle mass.
What are the best foods to maintain your muscles? Well, ‘complete’ proteins, typically from animal sources, containing a complete range of amino acids, have been shown to be most beneficial, such as dairy, poultry and fish. Quinoa and buckwheat also fall into the ‘complete’ category. Other plant sources are also good, but miss one or more amino acids to make them complete — this means they need to be combined with other plant proteins (e.g. rice and beans), which is easy at mealtimes.
This combination of resistance training and sufficient protein are the same principles elite athletes follow to keep their muscles strong and powerful — although with ageing, the muscles become less responsive (set in their ways) to both training and protein. This means protein intakes need to increase towards old age.
In general, doing some resistance work and getting enough protein to offset it shouldn’t feel like a life overall. You don’t need to start shifting those massive atlas balls like on World’s Strongest Man, but there does need to be some intent into your maintaining your muscles.
You can fight the ageing process using exercise and nutrition.