Four reasons exercise isn't enough to keep you strong and slim

Though physical activity is key to maintaining strong muscles, it's important to note these contributing factors to maintaining muscle mass.

Woman working out with exercise bands in her bedroom

Photo, Stockbyte.

Have you ever wondered how you managed to stay strong and slim in your twenties with little effort, only to wrestle to keep the same physique a decade or two later? The old adage, use it or lose it, rings true when it comes to muscle mass. Unfortunately, muscle — and along with it your metabolism — naturally decreases as we age.

But as we get older, simply hitting the gym and using the elliptical a few times a week just isn’t enough. Here are a few of my favourite tricks to ensure that you keep your metabolically-active muscle mass through the years.

1. Prioritize your protein
I’ve seen many patients who’ve been feverously hitting the gym for years without an increase in lean muscle mass but, within just a few weeks of boosting their protein intake, their muscle increases like magic — and with it, the number of calories they’re burning at rest.

Between 27 and 41 percent of adult women have dietary protein intakes below the current recommended dietary allowance — which is really just the bare minimum. The good news is you don’t have to eat pounds of meat each day: whey protein has been shown to stimulate muscle-protein synthesis and help preserve muscle mass.

Remember, muscle needs the right type of fuel in order to hang around, let alone grow. A 2011 study from the Netherlands found that muscle-protein synthesis was greatest after aging men consumed 35 grams of whey protein compared to consuming 10 or 20 grams.

Bottom line: I recommend women take in 25-30 grams of protein per meal while men consume 35-40 grams (and half of this for snacks). When in doubt, use nutrition sites such as calorieking.com or ontargetnutrition.com to make sure you’re hitting your target.

2. Ease off on the inflammation
High levels of inflammation affect your ability to build and preserve your muscle mass by reducing your body’s ability to process the protein that you’re taking in.

By controlling the development of low-grade inflammation in one study, researchers significantly decreased muscle mass loss in rats between 20 and 25 months. Combine a natural anti-inflammatory with weight training and you have a winning prevention combination.

In a 2012 pilot study of women aged 65 and older, half the group took four grams of fish oil a day for a month while the other half received no fish oil. Both groups hit the gym twice weekly for a strength training session. In the placebo group, muscle growth improved by 11 percent in response to exercise training, but the fish oil group improved their strength by 20 percent, almost doubling their response.

Bottom line: Use these additional tips — like getting your immune function in check and improving your digestion — to put out the fire of inflammation and you may find yourself with another positive side effect: a slimmer, leaner physique.

3. Get less radical
Not all free radicals are bad for you (your immune system actually creates them to fight off viruses), however they do become a problem when it’s greater than your body can handle. The result: unhealthy aging, cell damage and muscle dysfunction. If you’ve seen an apple turn brown after being cut, you’ve witnessed free-radical damage. However you may have noticed that if you squirt a bit of lemon juice (which is high in antioxidants) on that apple, it will remain crisp and white. Your body is the same.

It seems counterintuitive, but exercise actually causes free radical damage, which is why it’s even more important to keep your diet high in antioxidants in order to preserve precious muscle tissue.

Bottom line: Fruits (especially berries) and vegetables are high in antioxidants. Adding in a multivitamin will further prevent free-radical damage and actually improve your recovery (which makes walking up and down the stairs a lot easier after a strenuous workout). I also like to add a scoop of powdered greens to my smoothies as extra protection.

4. The wrong workouts
When it comes to your muscles, stress and in turn excess cortisol, is like letting termites loose in a wooden house. That’s why someone on corticosteroids, such as prednisone, will experience muscle wasting.

This imbalance however, is not always caused by the obvious — deadlines, traffic, arguments or financial woes — and often times the very activities you do in the gym can be reducing your lean muscle mass. Starvation diets have the same, negative results.

Research has shown that high-intensity endurance exercise, such as running or spinning, is not the best means for women to lose weight, and in fact, can be harmful. This type of exercise can increase cortisol, and in turn boost belly fat, decrease metabolically-active muscle and reduce your thyroid hormone. Both high-intensity and prolonged exercise cause increases in cortisol, which can remain elevated for hours following a workout. Researchers at the University of North Carolina have linked strenuous, fatiguing exercise to higher cortisol and lower thyroid hormones — a post-workout effect that can last up to 24 hours.

Bottom line: When it comes to strength training, short, sweet and frequent is a better bet. I recommend short, intense, 30 minute strength training sessions three times a week plus at least one yoga session. See more ways your workout is hurting your health here.

Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist, and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and The Supercharged Hormone Diet. Her newest release, The Carb Sensitivity Program, is now available across Canada. She’s also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique and a regular guest on The Dr. Oz Show. For more wellness advice from Natasha Turner, click here

-Article originally published June 2013.

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