This post is in response to studies that suggest physical activity alone will help maintain muscle mass in midlife (and older) women. It can be all too easy to take a study (or what the media says about it) at face value. In midlife and beyond, we’ve got to pull out all the stops. That is, physical activity needs to be adequate (yet not too much) and it requires the nutrition component also be on target.
Though a decrease in muscle mass during menopause may seem small (average of 1% in one study) the alarming thing is that the decline occurs in a short time period.
If you’re a woman in late stages of perimenopause or early post menopause right now, you’re primed for losing muscle (and bone, though not addressed in this study) at an accelerated rate.
It’s due to natural declines in estrogen (which makes it harder to maintain muscle), that causes an increase in cortisol (that causes acceleration of muscle breakdown), and decreased production of growth hormone and testosterone (due both to menopause and to sleep disruption when these are produced).
If you’re at home exercising without strength training, or thinking barre classes and Pilates are enough, you are enabling and inviting those losses.
I’m In Your Corner
Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m a prior dance minor and a certified Mat and Reformer Pilates instructor. I just don’t have time to get my highest priority exercise AND the ones I love in. If you’re busy, you’ve got to work out a plan that lets you balance the things you love with the things that will make you love life at every age, primarily strength training and intervals. And don’t take it it from me. Weigh yourself with a Smart Scale. Weight-only measuring can potentially slow your metabolism by resulting in a loss of muscle.
Your Diet Matters – as Much as Movement
If you’re not consuming adequate protein (not at the exclusion of a micronutrient-rich diet overall) – much higher than women are used to thinking of it – you are also enabling and inviting those muscle and bone losses. Physical activity alone won’t help you maintain muscle mass in midlife.
Flip: How much protein? Start with 30 grams at each meal. Breakfast will be by far the hardest. You’ll also potentially struggle with fasting vs. eating. For women in midlife? Your first meal of the day should come in the morning. It doesn’t have to be first thing. Hormone balance all day and night depends on that first meal.
Fasting vs Eating to Maintain Muscle Mass in Midlife (and beyond)
Eating early may help you optimize fat burning over fat storage, muscle gains vs. muscle loss or simply maintenance. Have your last meal earlier in the evening if you want to fast longer rather than go until noon or after. That’s especially true if you’re a high-functioning, decision-making, exercising woman who is struggling with fatigue. Fasting is not your friend. Roller-coaster blood sugar levels need a stable eating (and movement) cycle. You may try it again later, but now is not the time.
Your per meal protein goal is most important for protein synthesis. You need more than you once did to achieve the same results as you once did. But for a response to “how much daily?”, take your ideal weight in pounds and shoot for that amount of grams of protein per day distributed evenly in 3 meals, and maybe snacks.
I weigh 126- 128 ideally. If I have three meals of 30 grams (and boosting that to 35 if possible), I’m still at 95 – 105 at best, falling short of my 128 gm goal. So, if you do snack (I will often insert a protein shake after a workout for about 30 grams more) then I’m covered. Think of that like 4 meals a day. I don’t always do that. There are days I’m intentionally (you really can’t be an “accidental faster” and expect success) fasting and having nothing but water/black coffee/tea ‘til late morning “brunch” and then an early dinner. I might do that 5 days in a row in a given month or do it 2 non-consecutive days twice a week regularly.
A woman in midlife may not be able to extract all lessons from fitness models who are 20-somethings, but one lesson that may apply is fitness models tend to have 4 or 5 high protein meals a day. Not those 5-6 mini meals, mind you. But adequate protein has to be spread out because your body can only synthesis (and not feel over full) from a reasonable amount at each meal. One of those Uncle Buck steaks hanging over the plate wouldn’t be “more protein,” for muscle, it will be stored as fat because you’re consuming more than the body can handle at one meal.
Food for Thought Flip:
Many women unknowingly add a weight loss resistance factor as they consciously start to add more protein. Dairy products, eggs, and soy are among high protein sources. However, they are also most likely food sensitivities. If you’re consuming them often you may be giving your body reasons not to release weight. Test yourself by removing those foods (and others) for a time through an elimination phase, then reintroduce to test. The Food Flip is an companion to Flipping 50 strength programs to support you in doing that – without it being a “diet.” We just flip what you can have for what you can’t, make the recipes easy, effortless and something the whole family will eat.
For support tracking your food intake to easily see how well you meet goals for “Flipping 50” I created the 90 Day Planner. There are a few left from pre-pub orders. You can still save on the shipping, and get a series of videos to help you plan and understand why I suggest you track specific things… and how to interpret your results. Only available while in stock.
Physical Activity to Overcome Midlife Hormone Shifts
A loss of muscle slows metabolism and increases percent body fat both immediately and long term. Estrogen decreases both decrease muscle and increase fat storage – preferentially relocating to the belly.
- Resistance train
- Add the optimal high quality protein timing post workout (sometimes in addition pre-workout) and regularly at meals particularly during 24-hour period following intense strength training
- Avoid excess endurance exercise (which increases muscle breakdown)
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The research study was conducted in the Gerontology Research Center and Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, and is part of a larger study, Estrogenic Regulation of Muscle Apoptosis (ERMA), led by Academy Research Fellow Eija Laakkonen. More than a thousand women between the ages of 47 and 55 from the Jyväskylä region participated in the ERMA study. At the beginning of the study, 381 of them were perimenopausal, while 234 reached early postmenopause during the study. The research was funded by the Academy of Finland and the European Commission.
University of Jyväskylä – Jyväskylän yliopisto. (2020, June 8). Physical activity in all of its forms may help maintain muscle mass in midlife: Hormonal changes during menopause decrease muscle mass, but physical activity might slow the decrement. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 31, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200608104727.htm