Having a higher fat:muscle ratio has been linked to chronic diseases such as metabolic symdrome, diabetes and cancer. Maintaining your muscle mass will reduce your risk of age-related muscle loss which results in increased frailty and even disability.
Although the amount of muscle in your body will decline with age, losing 3-5% per year from age 30, it’s never too late to build muscle. This can be done through exercise and good nutrition - and both exercise and good nutrition will also help to preserve muscle as you get older.
Resistance training or “weight training” is the best way to build muscle. This type of exercise works the muscle hard and in doing so challenges your muscle so that it responds by adding size and strength, thus effectively creating more muscle.
The resistance exercise can be:
It is generally advisable, if possible, to use the services of a good Personal Trainer (PT). This will ensure that you learn how to do the exercise properly. This has two distinct benefits:
However, if that isn’t possible there are plenty of really useful routines available on YouTube and online. The MyFitness Pal website is a great resource:
Ideally you should aim for two-three strength training sessions per week. These sessions do not have to be long – even a ten minute workout will still make a difference. If you can work up to 20-30 minutes 2-3 x per week, you should start seeing results within a month.
Muscle growth needs rest since it is on the rest days that your muscles will have time to repair and grow stronger.
Cardio / aerobic exercise such as cycling, running or dancing also supports muscle growth and will help slow muscle loss. Aerobic exercise helps to burn fat as well as train and maintain the fitness of your heart and lungs. When your heart and lungs are working optimally, the efficiency of your body to both supply your muscles with nutrients and oxygen and remove any waste products (produced by exercise) is enhanced. Aerobic exercise can therefore improve the efficiency of the muscle-building exercises.
In order to build and maintain muscle, the body needs good nutrition.
The main nutrient which acts as a “building block” for generating and repairing muscle is protein. Muscle is broken down when you exercise and therefore your body needs dietary protein to help it rebuild itself. Resistance exercise also stimulates new muscle growth. It is usually recommended to have between 20-35% of your daily calories from protein. The actual amount required will vary depending on your level of physical activity, do bear in mind that eating more than 2g protein per kg body weight will not build more muscle but will just convert the excess protein into glucose which in turn will be converted into fat.
Examples of high protein foods include:
To optimise muscle growth, it is recommended to eat 20-25g of protein within ½ hour of exercise. Throughout the rest of the day you should aim to eat 4-5x this amount of protein in your meals/ snacks. Your body will absorb the protein most effectively if its consumption is spread over the day – so aim to eat some protein with every meal. Having a protein drink before bedtime can also support muscle growth because your body is resting whilst you sleep, and this rest provides the optimum time for muscle repair.
Carbohydrates are also essential to provide fuel for the muscles – if you do not eat enough carbohydrates then your muscles will not have the energy to work out and get stronger and muscle tissue will be broken down for energy. After exercise, it is therefore important to eat both protein and carbohydrates to help prevent muscle loss and to help repair muscles. The carbohydrates will restore the energy levels within the muscles and will be stored as muscle glycogen (which is the way in which glucose is stored in the muscle for future energy use)
Recommendations on carbohydrates after exercise are variable depending on whether or not you are trying to lose weight and how hard you exercise. Any excess carbohydrates will be converted into fat once your glycogen levels have been topped up. It is generally recommended that 50% of your daily calories should be consumed as carbohydrates if you are strength training to build muscle 2-3 x per week – so some of these calories should be allocated to the post-workout meal in order to effectively help your muscles to repair and grow.
If your focus is on building muscle whilst minimising any increase in body fat, then it is best to limit / avoid processed foods as much as possible. Processed foods and refined carbohydrates tend to be absorbed very quickly by the body and the resulting surge in blood sugar will quickly be converted into fat. Therefore, unrefined carbohydrates and whole foods such as beans, legumes, vegetables and fruit are much better options.
A major advantage of building muscle is that your body will burn more calories at rest – so one of the main reasons that men usually have higher daily calorie needs than women is because they tend to have more muscle.
So, if you actually lose muscle when you lose weight then the number of calories you burn at rest will decrease – if your calorie intake does not decrease as you lose this muscle then the extra energy that you are consuming beyond what your body now needs will be converted into fat.
This highlights the importance of conserving and building muscle when you are trying to lose weight – not only will you increase your body’s daily calorie requirements, meaning you are less likely to regain this weight, but you will also reap the other advantages of having healthy amounts of muscle in terms of fitness, decreased risk of some chronic diseases but also reduce the risk of age-related muscle loss.
Thus, the true emphasis of any diet should be on fat loss rather than weight loss (which could include muscle) given how important your fat-to-muscle ratio is to your overall health. The takeaway message is that more emphasis should be placed on improving your body composition than worrying about the number on the scales.
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