The same tissue that makes you strong and healthy as a young adult may also make you chubby and sluggish as you pass 40. Muscles are no safer from aging than hair (hello, grays!). Over the years, changing muscles will affect the look and function of even the most active people’s bodies.
So what gives?
It turns out the composition of your muscles changes over time. When you’re young, your muscle cells are full of mitochondria, which boosts metabolism. The more lean muscle mass you have, the better your chances of avoiding diabetes and heart disease, surviving a hospital stay, and even overcoming cancer. Powerful stuff! Unfortunately, starting in your 30s, you can expect to lose between 3 and 8 percent of your muscle mass with each new decade—even without changing any of your habits.
But, we’re not powerless against the loss of lean muscle mass and the accompanying weight gain and illness. Focus on staying active to reduce the risk of future health problems that come from losing strength and gaining body weight, and of course, to keep slaying in your favorite outfit.
Here are the four key ingredients to keeping muscles healthy as you age.
1. Get To The Gym
Keeping your muscles challenged is the best way to keep them young. And as you age, strength is also key to basic tasks like doing dishes and climbing stairs, along with avoiding falls.
Working out increases your the mitochondria in your muscle tissue, which, in turn, enables you to burn fat more efficiently, Bret Goodpaster, a muscle expert and researcher at Orlando’s Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes, told Prevention.
No matter your age, you can start building muscles if you stick to a plan. In one study, men over 60 did 12 weeks of resistance training. They were able to improve their strength at a similar rate to young men.
If you’re already active, don’t let the strength you’ve built waste away. But, if your favorite marathons involve reality TV, find an exercise you enjoy and do it a few times a week. Anything helps, and you can increase intensity and add weight training once you’re ready.
2. Fuel Up With Protein
You don’t need to go crazy with expensive shakes to reap the benefits of protein. In fact, just 20 grams of protein after a workout is enough for building and maintaining muscles. Just be sure your other meals throughout the day contain some as well.
For example, try scrambling up a couple of eggs after you hit the gym. Eggs are affordable and they also help burn fat while increasing muscle.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, some great veggie options that pack a protein punch include corn (5 grams per cup), peas (8 grams per cup), kale (3 grams per cup) and potatoes (4 grams per medium potato). Try a post-workout stir-fry to get the energy you need.
3. Enhance Your Gains With Vitamins
Your muscles may need some extra fuel. Talk to your doctor about whether your diet includes all the nutrients you need, or if vitamins are a good idea to help build your strength. Some of the best supplements for muscle growth and function include vitamin D, vitamin C, magnesium and calcium.
4. Show Your Muscles Some Love
Slowing down the aging of your muscles is hard work. Take good care of your body after you leave the gym to avoid injury and to stay motivated to do it exercise again tomorrow.
Enjoy a warm bath and a mug of green tea after your workout. The bath will soothe you and green tea’s polyphenols are like superfoods for your muscles, improving repair and recovery. In addition, new Virginia Tech research found resveratrol, a compound in red wine, preserves muscle fibers in aging mice. Cheers to that!