The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Strength training and a high-protein diet is the magic combination
Forget signing up to the gym and hours of cardio – there is a more enlightened route to a younger, feel-good body
What do most of us do when we want to shift a few extra pounds? Decrease the carbs and calories and increase the cardio? Despite an abundance of research on the benefits of weight training for better health and weight management, the common wisdom is deeply ingrained and building muscle is an area of fitness that’s often neglected – particularly by women in midlife.
“My clients often take a lot of persuading to start using weights properly,” says Rachael Sacerdoti, a personal trainer whose lifestyle brand It’s So Simple helps women get in shape by building muscle. “Women worry they’ll bulk up in a masculine way, that if they stop lifting weights their muscle will turn to fat and that weights won’t improve their cardiovascular health. These are all misconceptions. I would never advise to drop classic cardio altogether – because it’s important for endorphins and of course it’s great for heart health – but for women over 40, weight training is the most important thing.”
When it comes to muscle, it is a numbers game. “Research shows that post-30, we begin to lose 3-5 per cent of our muscle mass each decade,” explains nutritional therapist Alex Allan. Post-70, the rate we lose increases further. “This can be due to a more sedentary way of life, but also, as our testosterone levels start to decrease [in men and women], we create less lean muscle mass. Increasing levels of resistance and weight training along with increasing levels of protein can help to counteract the loss.”
A decrease in muscle mass goes hand in hand with an increase in “metabolic age” – a fitness buzzword based on your basal metabolic rate (BMR). “In essence your BMR is a measure of how many calories are needed to keep you alive at rest – the energy needed for breathing, circulation and digestion,” Allan adds.
Dr Nilanjana Tewari, a consultant surgeon with a specialism in metabolism, explains: “Your metabolic age compares your BMR to the average BMR for people of your chronological age in the general population. Muscle burns more calories than fat so someone who has a high level of muscle mass will burn more calories sitting at their desk than someone with a lower muscle mass. So the fitter, healthier, and stronger you are, the lower your metabolic age will be.”
If you’re interested in finding out your BMR and metabolic age, body analyser scales will do the calculation for you.
The health benefits of having a lower metabolic age are farreaching. “There is evidence to link lower BMR and metabolic age with health outcomes, such as age-related mortality and diabetes. Metabolic age is also linked to your metabolic health, which is a strong indicator of wellbeing. Markers of metabolic health include waist circumference, blood sugar, triglyceride and cholesterol levels, and blood pressure.”
“Increasing muscle mass can actually turn back time when it comes to your metabolic age,” adds Sacerdoti. But are most of us women really grunting and groaning enough over our dumbbells to be building muscle? Research from the University of Essex last year found women are 34 per cent less likely to do enough strength training and to meet overall exercise guidelines than men. And you only need to peek into a sports or health-food shop to see that building muscle is marketed as a man’s game.
But according to the experts, women can and should be using weights. “The rule of thumb is that you should feel fatigued by the end of the exercise – and keep increasing your weights to make sure you keep challenging the muscles you’re building,” Sacerdoti advises. But, she adds, it’s always important to maintain form and technique to avoid injury. At the point of fatigue, muscle fibres break down, but with protein, calories and rest they rebuild, which is where the growth happens. But if you want to get started and you don’t have weights, you can also use your own body weight. Rachael recommends squats, lunges, push-ups and triceps dips as good starter exercises.
Coupling strength workouts with a high protein diet is the magic combination. “The amount of protein you need to build muscle depends on your individual body weight, but as a very rough guide, women should be looking at a minimum of 100g a day, alongside workouts,” advises Sacerdoti. Chicken breast contains around 35g of protein and a tuna steak approximately 28g per 100g, so consuming 120g a day takes focus at every meal – including breakfast. Greek and high-protein yoghurts or eggs are a great start to the day and other hero foods include smoked salmon, cottage cheese and lentils. As a rough rule of thumb, Sacerdoti recommends a portion of lean protein like tuna or chicken should be the full size of your hand, while fattier proteins like beef should be the size of your palm.
“It’s not always easy for women to get enough protein in just three meals, so I also advise a 4pm snack of around 20-25g of protein, which also allows you to hold your appetite for dinner,” Sacerdoti says. “It could be rice cakes with salmon and cottage cheese, protein shakes or a high-protein chocolate bar.” It’s worth finding a protein bar that gives you a good dose of protein for your calorific buck – 200 calories could give you 20g protein.
Carbs are also a necessary part of every meal according to both Sacerdoti and Allan. “Lots of women find it hard to believe that they can eat carbs at every meal and stay in great shape, but if you’re working out, you should have around 40 per cent protein, 40 per cent vegetables and 20 per cent carbs on your plate,” Sacerdoti says. “I recommend those with lower glycemic levels that won’t cause blood sugar spikes, like quinoa, sweet potato, brown rice or sourdough, but white carbs are also OK in small doses.”
And of course something we find hard to maintain in all areas of life is balance. Sacerdoti says, “I work on an 80-20 lifestyle balance – if you’re in a routine 80 per cent of the time, when you’re out at a restaurant or at a friend’s house for dinner, let go.”
Meet the women who have shifted their mindset and transformed their bodies.
‘Post 30, we begin to lose 3-5 per cent of our muscle mass each decade. Weight training along with increasing levels of protein can help to counteract the loss’