Reverse muscle loss with regular strength training.
If you're noticing that your body has started to feel pudgier as you've entered your 50's, you're not alone. As you age, it's tempting to believe your muscles are converting into fat, but the two types of tissues are completely different. Your body is, however, changing with age, and there are several reasons you're likely not as fit as you were in your youth.
Fat and Muscle: Apples and Oranges
Your body is made up of different types of tissue including fat, muscles, organs and bones. Each of these tissues is completely different, and one cannot turn into another. You can gain or lose muscle or fat, or increase or decrease your bone density, but you never convert one type of tissue into another. The change in one type of tissue, however, can change your metabolism and affect the other tissues in your body. For example, if you lose muscle mass, your metabolism will slow and your body can start to increase fat storage, even though you have not increased your calories.
Age and your Body
After you reach the age of 30, your body fat steadily increases and can rise by up to 30% over the years. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, men gain weight until they are about 55 and then start to lose weight. Women, meanwhile, gain weight until they're 65, at which point they start to drop the pounds. If you are 50 or over and don't exercise, you can expect to lose up to 0.4 of muscle every year. While that may not seem like a lot to worry about, muscle loss can impact more than just what you look like. Muscle loss means strength loss, so as you age, you become weaker. This can translate to becoming less independent and not being able to do everyday tasks, such as lifting or even walking.
Why You're Losing Muscles
Several factors contribute to sarcopenia, or the age-related loss of muscle mass, strength and function. As you age, your spinal cord neurons and functioning motor units decrease. These units are responsible for sending signals to your muscles from your brain. As your muscle fibers stop getting signals to move, they slowly die. As you age, your body also becomes less efficient at processing protein. Since muscles need protein to stay strong, the lack of protein causes them to slowly break down. While these two body changes cannot be reversed, a third cause of muscle loss is completely based on lifestyle. Lack of exercise, especially resistance training, also causes your muscles to atrophy or get smaller. You can stop or even reverse this by taking up a strength training program.
Why the Fat?
As you age, your body also increases its fat stores. This is partly due to a decrease in hormones including growth hormone, testosterone and insulin-like growth factor. There is conflicting evidence that this can be reversed with hormone replacement therapy. The other cause of fat gain is your loss of muscle. Muscle burns more calories than other body tissue. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, even at rest. Likewise, the less muscle you have, the slower your metabolism, the less fat you burn and the easier it is to gain weight, even if you don't change your diet.
Hold On to Your Muscles
It's important to continue doing cardio and strength training, even in your 50s, to keep your metabolism revved, to maintain muscle and to help prevent weight gain. If you have never exercised or have taken a long break from exercising, get clearance from your doctor and start slowly. Use your body weight or light weight exercises, and gradually increase resistance as you become more comfortable with the exercises. It can be helpful to speak to a personal trainer to learn how to properly perform exercises. Always start your workout with a warm up and finish with a cool down to slowly prepare your body for exercise and gradually return it to its resting state. Stop exercising immediately if you feel any sharp pains, become faint or feel short of breath.