Did you know that women start losing muscle as early as their 30’s and the loss continues at a rate of 3-5% with every passing decade?
As we age, we involuntarily lose muscle mass and strength (1), making it more difficult to keep a healthy weight, keep a nice toned body, and maintain a good quality of life.
Besides age, muscle is lost when you decrease physical activity when you are injured or due to a medical condition (a lot less likely). The good news is you can maintain muscle with a proper diet and the correct type of exercise.
Slowing down muscle loss is under YOUR control!
Let’s take a closer look at symptoms, causes, and treatments of muscle loss and the important role that nutrition plays. But, most importantly, let’s understand why we care about having muscle.
Why Does Muscle Loss Matter in Terms of Weight Gain?
The more muscle we have, the more calories we burn at rest. So, to explain it easily, if you maintain your muscle mass, you are less likely to gain weight because you are burning more calories throughout the day.
When we lose muscle, we progressively increase fat mass, and we notice a change in body composition, which makes our body look different and heavier even when the weight stays the same.
Moreover, this change in body composition has also been associated with insulin resistance in adults (1).
Nutrition is a key factor in preventing muscle wasting. While the focus is on eating enough protein to maintain muscle mass, other nutrients are important too. For example, there is research on the role of vitamin D, C, and E in preventing muscle loss (2).
In addition, malnutrition (undernutrition) will also result in muscle loss. As you imagine, eating too little will lead to malnutrition. Also, certain diseases cause malnutrition due to the decreased absorption of nutrients.
Age-Related Muscle Loss
As we age, the body changes, specifically muscle mass decreases. This age-related loss of muscle mass is referred to as age-related Sarcopenia (6).
Sarcopenia occurs because the body produces fewer proteins that promote muscle growth, and this causes the muscle cells to shrink.
The decrease of muscle mass due to age is normal but unwelcomed because it may increase the risk of injuries and quality of life.
Lack of Physical Activity
Many women after 40 become less physically active as they balance a busy life, work, family, and friends. This physical inactivity results in loss of muscle mass.
Furthermore, a sedentary lifestyle can be the result of injuries or broken bones.
Many diseases can also cause loss of muscle mass, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (7), muscular dystrophy (8), multiple sclerosis (9), neuropathy (10), spinal muscular atrophy (11), stroke, neck or spinal cord injury, insulin resistance (12), rheumatoid arthritis, and other chronic diseases that decrease physical function.
In addition, cachexia is another known to cause muscle atrophy and extreme weight loss (13). Cachexia usually occurs due to medical conditions such as HIV, cancer, or multiple sclerosis. Cachexia may cause reduced appetite and unintentional weight loss even when meeting caloric needs.
Symptoms of Muscle Loss
- Weakness in limbs or numbness and tingling in arms or legs
- Impaired balance/difficulty walking
- General stiffness
Potential Complications of Muscle Loss
- Decreased or lack of mobility
- Loss of muscle strength/ loss of skeletal muscle mass
- Weight gain
- Decreased sports performance
More severe complications of muscle loss include disability, paralysis, and loss of independence. But, again, these complications occur due to medical conditions.
How to Slow Down Muscle Loss
Increase Physical Activity
Keeping your muscles in an active state will help fight the loss of muscle. So, it is time to increase your weekly resistance training, aerobic exercise, and balance training. But, first, let’s discuss some exercises that can help build muscle.
Exercises That Build Muscle
- Strength training workouts (weight training or exercises that use your own body weight)
- Plyometrics (such as pushups, jumping, throwing, and running)
- Exercises using resistance bands
- Resistance exercise
To prevent muscle loss, you want to avoid being deficient in protein, calories, and specific vitamins and minerals. Proper nutrition can easily help you maintain lean body mass and healthy body weight.
When you consume adequate protein, your muscles can build and strengthen. This is because protein provides amino acids, the building blocks of muscles.
Moreover, as we get older, it is even more essential to consume adequate protein because our muscles become more resistant to the signals of the growth hormones (13).
How much protein do you need? If you do a moderate amount of physical activity, a range between 0.8 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is adequate.
If you are more active, experts recommend up to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is recommended. However, don’t focus on the number as you can easily meet your needs by eating a normal serving of protein with every meal.
Vitamin D has also been shown to potentially increase muscle strength (14), however, keep in mind that supplements might be necessary. It is always a good idea to ask your doctor to check your vitamin D levels when doing your annual physical and take supplements based on the results.
In addition, recent research also shows that vitamin C and E might also play a role in maintaining your muscle mass.
Vitamin C is easy to find in citrus fruits and most red and orange fruits and vegetables. Also, nuts, seeds, and oils have vitamin E.
Vitamin D is a little trickier, as there are only a few food sources of this vitamin, including fatty fish (such as salmon), fortified milk, and other fortified foods.
However, you find plenty of vitamin D in the sunshine! So, many experts recommend that you go outside every day for at least 15 minutes. Think about taking a short walk or other forms of exercise while enjoying the sun to tackle muscle loss in two different ways.
Lastly, a study found that consuming a 2-gram fish oil supplement and resistance training increased muscle strength in women 45 and older than those who did not consume the fish oil (15).
Other Medical Treatments
Treatment will depend on the severity of the muscle atrophy and underlying medical conditions. If medical conditions are present, those are treated first to slow down muscle loss.
Treatment may include physical therapy, functional electrical stimulation, ultrasound therapy, and surgery.
Muscle loss is a natural part of aging. After 30, we start losing muscle strength and lean mass, making it harder for women to keep a healthy weight.
However, muscle mass is under your control. All it takes is to exercise consistently.
Dr. Su-Nui Escobar is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist in Miami, FL. She is passionate about helping women over 40 live their best lives through healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle. Su-Nui is a doctor in clinical nutrition, able to translate complicated evidence-based science into practical advice. Su-Nui’s charisma and warmth have made her a frequent guest on Hispanic popular morning television shows.