The Muscle-Fat Balance: Unraveling the Mystery Behind Women’s Obesity After Age 40

In the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle and combating obesity, the focus often turns towards weight management through the lens of just reducing fat. However, this is not the full story.  A critical player in this equation often goes unnoticed – muscle mass.

In other words, when a person is struggling with weight issues, is that person over fat or under muscled?

Certainly, there is a place for focusing on reducing body fat, especially the unhealthy visceral fat which is why when I work with individuals, I focus on methods to quickly target and burn body fat at the start of a person’s program. 

But we do not stop there, I also transition into focusing on how much muscle a person has and work towards increasing their muscle otherwise as this is what will make it much easier for them to maintain their weight not to mention so many other health benefits of increased muscle mass as a person ages.

Why is it so important to incorporate strategies to increase muscle mass after weight loss for people over 40 years old?

As people age, they naturally lose muscle starting at age 35 especially if their daily lifestyle is quite sedentary. Also, this is also especially true for people who have dieted over the years and there is a good chance they have lost even more muscle. 

Muscle contributes to the metabolic rate in a person (number of calories their body burns at rest). The significance of this loss in muscle means that their metabolism slows down and they are burning less calories at rest. That is what begins the struggle of them being more prone to gaining weight (fat) and making it harder to lose that fat. 

They become stuck in the struggle of always managing weight through non-stop dieting to reduce caloric intake and hours of cardio trying to burn more calories. Their body is actually working against them at this point, and it is due to the loss of muscle that has happened due to aging and dieting.

Instead think of muscle as an organ not just the tissues that help us move our body around.  When one focuses on increasing their muscle then their metabolism increases, so it is burning more calories at rest and their body gets better at managing glucose and burning fat.  Now their body is working for them and they are no longer caught in the struggle of eating less and doing more and more cardio.

This is why I also look at strategies to help people increase their muscle mass in the latter part of their program. 

Below I explain the significance of maintaining muscle and why it is so important when it comes to maintaining weight loss and as well how it has a significant impact on how well we will age.

The Overlooked Hero: Skeletal Muscle

Skeletal muscle plays a pivotal role in our metabolic health, regulating processes from glucose control to aging. Beyond just weight maintenance, adequate muscle mass proves essential in preventing chronic diseases and enhancing longevity.

The Metabolic Currency: Functions of Skeletal Muscle

  1. Glucose Disposal:
  • More muscle means more sites for glucose disposal, impacting insulin and blood sugar levels.
  1. Fat Burning:
  • Skeletal muscle houses mitochondria, burning fat and creating energy, allowing for better fat metabolism. Even when you are not exercising your body is burning fat
  1. Amino Acid Reservoir:
  • Muscle acts as a reservoir of amino acids crucial for immune support and tissue repair, emphasizing the importance of maintaining muscle mass. A critical factor in healthy aging.
  1. Endocrine Function:
  • Muscle secretes myokines that communicate with various organs, influencing bone health, immune function, and inflammation levels.

Increasing our muscle not only helps with managing body composition but it is our currency for healthy aging. Hence why people over 40 need to start focusing on building their muscle mass.

Muscle is made of protein and protein is made from amino acids. When we get sick or have an injury our body needs more energy and more amino acids to support our immune system and for tissue repair.  

In order to access more amino acids when we our sick our body goes into a “catabolic” state where it breaks down skeletal muscle to get more amino acids.  It is like cashing in an investment from your RRSP fund when you need money.  So having a bigger reservoir of amino acids means you dramatically improve your ability to survive an illness and also to not be significantly depleted afterwards. 

I certainly saw this happen when my father in his 80’s got pneumonia and ended up in the hospital for about 7 days. He was an active man prior to this illness who walked independently, could get out of a chair easily, could bend down and pick something up off the floor. 

But after 7 days of being ill and bedridden his strength and mobility declined significantly.  I was shocked when the nurse asked me at the time of his discharge about his walker and said he would need help at home because he could not get himself out of bed by himself. His immune system and body had been working double time to heal from pneumonia and because of needing more energy and needing to make more cells for his immune system. To do this his body had to tap into his reserves of amino acids which came from his muscles. The result was significant weakness and loss of mobility. 

This is a very common story.

So having a healthy amount of skeletal muscle as one ages means you have a robust savings account of amino acids so if one does get ill, they can fully recover and not become significantly immobile due to the muscle loss. This makes skeletal muscle one of the biggest predictors of healthy aging.

People invest and save money in their retirement fund so they can enjoy their life after they retire. Think of building up your skeletal muscle as increasing the currency in your health savings account. 

So whether your goal is to lose weight and stop the cycle of losing muscle at the same time keeping you stuck in the yoyo of weight loss/gain or to make sure that you age well and have a robust surplus of muscle then read on to learn about the 2 key strategies necessary to keep and build muscle.

How to prevent muscle loss and increase muscle

There are 2 critical components required to make sure one  stops losing muscle and is able to  increase their muscle mass. 

1. Eat enough high quality protein

2. Do effective resistance training

The Protein Puzzle: Quality Matters

While conventional advice often revolves around moving more and eating less, the emphasis on dietary protein and muscle maintenance is often overlooked. Here are key points with respect to eating protein and how it contributes to stimulating muscle growth:

  1. Protein Quality:
  • Different proteins contain varying amino acid levels. High-quality proteins, meeting essential amino acid needs, play a crucial role.
  1. Minimum Protein Intake:
  • The recommended daily protein intake is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Aim for at least 1 gram per pound of ideal body weight, especially if calorie intake is low.  This will also differ depending upon how much exercise one is doing.  Eating more protein as we get older becomes even more important.
  1. Meal Timing:
  • The first meal of the day, rich in protein, jumpstarts muscle protein synthesis, aiding in blood sugar regulation and appetite suppression. The last meal of the day as well needs to have enough protein in it

Just eating the recommended protein is not quite enough though.  That is like putting all the ingredients into a pot to make a stew but not turning on the heat.  To make the stew the heat needs to be turned on.  To build muscle the process of protein synthesis needs to get turned now that it has the ingredients.

This is the role of exercise, especially resistance training.  

That is the fire that will ignite the growth of muscle as long as the body has the amino acid building blocks.  

Exercise proves to be a powerful tool, improving insulin levels, blood glucose, triglycerides, and HDL. It sensitizes skeletal muscle, making it more responsive to glucose over time.

Exercise Essentials: Volume, Overload, and Variety

  1. Resistance Exercise:
  • Regular resistance exercise, focusing on volume (doing it enough times) and progressive overload (enough resistance or weight to overload the muscle so it gets stronger), stimulates muscle tissue and gene expression. There are many methods for resistance training from using body weight, using resistance bands, and using weights.  Form is very important to prevent injuries.  The focus is to work each muscle group at least 2 times/week to stimulate growth.  This could be 2 full body workouts/week or do multiple shorter workouts in the week where each workout focuses only on a couple of areas in the body, but those shorter workouts need to be repeated twice/week/body part
  1. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT):
  • Incorporating HIIT, even once a week, adds diversity to the exercise routine, benefiting overall health.  HIIT stimulates growth hormone and testosterone which also helps to stimulate muscle growth. 
  • Doing very long sessions of cardio sessions can result in the breakdown of muscle. So, cardio will not contribute to muscle growth and it needs to be kept to lower level of intensity avoiding very long sessions to prevent the cardio breaking down muscle for additional energy.  This way you get some aerobic exercise yet still maintain your muscle which is much more important to set as priority once over age 40

Overcoming Anabolic Resistance: Adapting with Age

As individuals age, anabolic resistance kicks in, meaning the body is less receptive to the signals that stimulate muscle growth.  So the muscles are less efficient in sensing dietary protein. This is why the quality of the protein we eat becomes more important and why the doing resistance exercise becomes even more important after age 40.  We need to overcome this resistance in the body to building muscle as it ages, unlike when we were in our 20’s or 30’s. 

Shifting Focus for Weight Loss and Longevity

In the battle against obesity, it’s time to shift the narrative from solely focusing on fat loss to also incorporating gaining muscle. Muscle is the currency of longevity, and prioritizing its health can lead to easier weight loss and weight maintenance, improved metabolism, and overall well-being. Remember, it’s not just about shedding pounds; it’s about building a foundation for a healthier, more robust future.