Mar 21, 2023
Think after 40 muscle is a thing of the past? Think again!
There was a time when I was a cardio bunny. I dabbled in strength training but spent hours each week, sometimes a day, doing “aerobics.”
We tend to think, because we were told it so often for decades, that aerobic activity is best for fitness. Even though more and more science featuring postmenopausal women shows muscle has the most influence on numerous components of health, we’re still drawn to “cardio.”
Are you at a point what you’re doing isn’t working, yet found yourself reluctant to exchange cardio for strength training? This is for you.
Women Need Muscle-Centric Exercise More Than Men
Women begin with less muscle and more fat than men. Fat is essential for reproduction. Once hormones needed for reproduction, but also muscle maintenance, decline during the menopause transition, fat tends to increase and muscle loss is pronounced.
One reason that “cardio” doesn’t “burn the fat” or boost metabolism is that with the decline of sex hormones, women are more susceptible to negative effects of stress. (2) Cardio, in the way we’ve always done it, tends to increase stress. (3) At this same time, women tend to become more insulin resistant. A body under stress stores fat in a form of self-preservation. It can’t both burn and store fat. The stress hormone cortisol and insulin team up and tend to increase fat deposits around the belly. At midlife, doing more cardio to lose belly weight may actually cause more belly fat.
Keep Stress Low
Short walks, even longer hikes, or short bursts of high intensity can certainly reduce the overall stress impact of exercise. That is, keep the stress positive. That hinges most on whether you enjoy, or find joy in, the activity and monitor your stress from all areas of life, adjusting as needed. However, these cardio activities don’t influence fat burning beyond the activity. They don’t increase muscle mass.
Exercise that increases lean muscle mass, however, will not only improve body composition, but many of the symptoms of menopause, and increases healthy lifespan. This goes far beyond just risk of falls.
After 40 muscle is harder, not impossible to build. After 50 it’s harder than that. Start.
You’ve Been Robbed
Muscle loss begins at about 30. Studies vary on rate of loss being approximately 3-8% per decade or up to 1% annually after 30 but agree this rate is even higher both during the menopause transition and increases after 60. In severe instances, there is 50% total muscle loss by 80.
Muscle mass losses alter body composition (less muscle means more fat even if you don’t gain fat) and are directly correlated with insulin resistance. Not only is this acutely frustrating for women with stubborn weight or belly fat, but long term can lead to type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and osteoporosis.
Recent History’s Influence on Muscle and Health
Though we’re past the worst of the pandemic, we’re going to see consequences of the pandemic for years. On average 42% of the population gained weight, on average 29 lbs., during the pandemic.
It wasn’t muscle. Gyms were closed. Dumbbells weren’t available. For women during the menopause transition when muscle and bone loss can accelerate significantly, (8) is greater chance of early disability.
Lack of the muscle stimulus from estrogen combined with lack of strength training to offset it, could mean greater levels of sarcopenia and osteoporosis if not mitigated.
Basic Muscle Facts
To gain muscle, you need strength, or resistance training. Women need strength training more than cardio. Women need strength training even more than men. Women 50 or older need strength training more than women 30.
Menopause-Related Reasons to Gain Muscle in Midlife
Let’s be honest, we’re more motivated by immediate gratification than long term risk aversion. Muscle provides both. Well-documented menopause symptoms include but are not limited to:
Muscle, and muscle building activity, or resistance training, has been shown to improve each and every one of these symptoms. What’s more, strength training surpasses cardio training in doing so. Cardio-induced stress is catabolic, meaning muscle breaks down at a faster rate.
There’s more to love about muscle. It decreases inflammation. Inflammation that is linked to many diseases, particularly, Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Termed, type 3 diabetes, Alzheimer’s is also a function of blood sugar. There’s a direct correlation between amount of muscle mass and risk of AD and dementia. At age 65 a woman’s risk of Alzheimer’s is 1 in 5.
We are going to outlive men. We’re going to need our strength to retain independence.
Convinced? Here’s how to know you’re on the right path.
Measure How Much Muscle You Have
Body composition can’t be tracked by a scale alone. Invest in a Smart Scale, that is one that measures body fat percent at the least. If it gives you muscle mass in pounds or kgs, even better. You however can do the mass if you have weight and percent body fat.
Don’t make the mistake of using BMI (Body Mass Index) as a measure of body composition. You don’t know if your muscle is going up, down, or staying the same with BMI. When you know, you can modify exercise or lifestyle habits to support your muscle. It’s better to know regularly than to find out annually or occasionally from the doctor or a gym.
After 40 Muscle Building Tips
What Matters Most
All of the exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle tips matter. But the greatest of these is strength training. That is, if you begin strength training without increasing protein intake or prioritizing sleep, you’ll still benefit. Exercise is a catalyst for other health change however, so you may just find you sleep better because of the exercise, and that you’re more conscious of your protein intake.
Work up to twice weekly total body sessions strength sessions with at least 3 sets of 8-10 muscle groups as heavy as you safely can. Watch your energy and overall Total Energy Expenditure (TEE) go up because you’ve increased strength without undue fatigue and soreness. For midlife women, this sweet spot for gaining lean muscle is the key to something that can be maintained for life, and that upgrades life.
Long-term Wins with After 40 Muscle
When women strength train, their future changes for the better. Following exercise programs focused on resistance training rather than weight or fat loss, weight and body composition of postmenopausal women were maintained over a six-year period. By comparison, subjects with low levels of participation, or cardio-only programs, experience significant increases in weight, fat, and belly fat.
A midlife client once said to me, “I don’t care what the question is, the answer is exercise.”
I couldn’t agree more, but to be most accurate, for women over 50, its exercise with strength training as its foundation.
You're Invited! The Online Event for Women Over 40:
How to get and keep muscle, bone, and brain after 40:
Other Episodes You May Like:
5 Keys for Building Muscle After Menopause: https://www.flippingfifty.com/building-muscle-after-menopause/
The Genetics of Metabolism and Weight Loss for Women Over 40: https://www.flippingfifty.com/genetics-of-metabolism/