When I turned 30, I didn’t give much thought to my muscles. No, let me take that back. I gave zero thought to my muscles.
Despite my obliviousness, something started to happen to my body around that time and, if you’re over 30, it’s probably already started happening to you too. That something is a decline in muscle mass.
On average, muscle mass peaks around the age of 30 and from there it’s all downhill. Unfortunately, loss of skeletal muscle mass, known as sarcopenia, is a natural part of ageing. To make matters worse, while muscle mass begins its steady decline after 30, it rapidly accelerates after the age of 50. For someone who is fast approaching that age, I’ve become increasingly interested in how I can improve my health by building muscle.
So, what’s so important about muscle mass?
In a recent research study published in the American Journal of Medicine, doctors found that muscle mass index was a higher predictor of longevity than BMI (Body Mass Index). What this simply means is that how much muscle you have is a better predictor of how long you will live than how fat or thin you are.
In the episode “How to exercise better” on the ABC’s Catalyst series, Louise Burke, one of Australia’s leading sports dietitians explains why.
“One of the ways that older people die is from a lack of muscle mass. They don’t have enough muscle mass and enough function to not fall over or be able to just look after themselves,” she says.
A decline in muscle mass also means an increase likelihood of falls. In 2015, the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research reported that people with sarcopenia had 2-3 times the risk of falls which resulted in a broken bone.
If you’re thinking that old age is a long way away and doesn’t apply to you, think again. Changes that you make now and maintain through old age can stop muscle mass decline and, studies have shown, even reverse it.
According to research, the best way to tackle sarcopenia is through exercise and diet.
For many of us, the idea of building muscle conjures up images of huge, burly men with bulging muscles: straining, grunting and groaning while lifting double their body weight despite the angry protests of their veins and muscles which look ready to explode at any moment.
But building and maintaining muscle mass doesn’t mean you have to lift excessively heavy weights. In fact, there are a wide variety of ways to build muscle that don’t involve straining to the point of exploding!
Personal trainer, Stuart Voysey, from Cecil Hills in Sydney’s West, believes that the key to health and muscle building is variety. He not only ensures variety for his “Get Addicted” clients through programs such as HIRT, Metafit, MetaPWR, Bootcamp and personal training but he also practises what he preaches.
And for good reason. In 2006, at the age of 49, Voysey was diagnosed with osteoporosis. Doctors insisted he commence medication immediately but Voysey, who was studying for his personal trainer qualifications at the time, vehemently refused. Changes to his diet and exercise regime resulted in such significant improvements that his doctors downgraded his diagnosis from osteoporosis to osteopenia just 18 months later. Almost 12 years after his initial diagnosis, his condition has not deteriorated.
But what does osteoporosis have to do with muscle mass? Numerous studies support the concept of a bone–muscle unit, where constant communication between the two tissues takes place. What this essentially means is that the factors that play a part in the development of osteoporosis are also believed to contribute to sarcopenia.
Voysey understands that maintaining muscle mass helps to support bone structure which is why he believes in the importance of incorporating strength training into his weekly workouts.
What exercise should I be doing?
Now we all know that we need to exercise but many people are confused about what exercise programs are available to help build and maintain muscles without spending hours in the gym.
Here are some popular exercise programs that can help build and maintain muscle mass:
HIRT (High Intensity Resistance Training): the traditional weights approach with a difference
HIRT involves performing a series of strength training exercises for a set number of reps without rest. It is a perfect program for people low on time but who want a workout which includes strength training with added cardio benefit. But it does involve heavy lifting.
However, the weight used is dependent on each person’s individual capability and their goals, Voysey explains.
“HIRT definitely helps to build muscle. Many people have weak muscles and are relying on their joints and ligaments to carry them around all day. This inevitably leads to injuries which stops them from exercising. With HIRT we can target those specific weak muscles by loading up specific exercises,” he says.
Not for the faint-hearted, Metafit is a HIIT workout (high intensity interval training) which uses a combination of body weight exercises with explosive cardio movements which work large muscle groups such as the glutes and quads.
“If you look at a lot of older people as they’re climbing stairs, you’ll see that many of them tend to lean forward. This is because they don’t have the strength in their glutes to help them up. Metafit targets those large muscles that help us move around and perform everyday activities,” Voysey explains.
Developed by the creators of Metafit, MetaPWR takes the concept of Metafit and cranks it up a notch (or two) with the addition of weights.
Although the sessions are intense, each exercise can be modified and participants can opt to use lighter or heavier weights depending on the stage they’re at.
“Adding that extra weight will challenge your muscles. The exercises will help to lay down more muscle fibres so the muscles get bigger and stronger,” explains Voysey who is also a qualified MetaPWR and Metafit coach.
TRX Suspension system
The TRX suspension system helps to improve strength by leveraging gravity and bodyweight
The TRX Suspension training system uses two resistance straps which leverage gravity and bodyweight to improve strength, balance, flexibility and core stability.
“Users of TRX control how much they want to challenge themselves as the exercises become harder or easier depending on body positioning or whether you add or decrease resistance,” explains Voysey.
If you’re doubtful that simply using two straps will help with increasing muscle, one scientific study has shown that suspension training is on par with weight training. In the study, published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine in 2014, 36 untrained men were split into two groups both of whom exercised three days a week for seven weeks. One group did traditional strength exercises such as presses and bicep curls while the other group exercised using the TRX suspension system. At the end of the study, researchers concluded that there were no differences in strength between the two groups.
DIET: protein is key
Another important factor in building muscle is diet and, in particular, protein. Basically, protein is food for the muscles as its main function is to repair and build muscle fibres. Proteins are made up many different types of amino acids and when your diet is deficient in amino acids, muscle wasting or atrophy occurs. This means that muscle is broken down to fuel the body’s energy needs.
In the ABC episode “How to exercise better”, Burke explains the importance of not only getting the right quantity of protein each day but spreading your protein intake every four or five hours.
So how much protein do you need?
The Australian National health and medical council recommend 0.75grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight for women and 0.84g for men. Interestingly, the protein requirement increases with age to compensate for sarcopenia. For more detailed information on your RDI requirements, go to: https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/protein
A word about fats
Voysey is passionate about the changes to his diet which saw him cut out processed foods, reduce carbs and increase fats. Voysey explains that fat is essential for the production of hormones such as testosterone.
Before making changes to his diet, Voysey’s testosterone levels were extremely low. Studies have shown that men with low testosterone also have low bone density putting them at a high risk of osteopenia and significant risk for osteoporosis. Adding healthy fats to his diet, in addition to muscle building exercises has seen Voysey’s testosterone levels rise to normal levels.
Given the complex relationship between fats, hormones, bone density, osteoporosis and sarcopenia, it is it is easy to understand Voysey’s enthusiasm for his low-carb, healthy fat diet.
In a nutshell
So, if you’re over 30 and not thinking about your muscles, it’s probably time that you start. Oh and don’t just think about it … start using them!
For information about Metafit and MetaPWR go to https://www.facebook.com/metafitcecilhills/
Disclaimer: Always check with your doctor or health professional before commencing any new exercise program.
Find out more about Get Addicted at https://www.facebook.com/GetAddictedFitness/
Strength and muscle loss mass with aging process. Age and strength loss in: Muscles, Ligaments Tendons Journal 2013 Oct-Dec: 3(4): 346-350
José Luis Maté-Muñoz, Antonio J. Antón Monroy, Pablo Jodra Jiménez, Manuel V. Garnacho-Castaño Effects of instability versus traditional resistance training on strength, power and velocity in untrained men. in Journal of Sports Science and medicine, Sept 2014.