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After 50, muscle is a girl’s best friend 

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There was a time when I was a cardio bunny. I dabbled in strength training but spent hours each week, sometimes a whole day, doing “aerobics.”

 Because we’ve been told this so often for decades, we’ve come to believe aerobic activity is best for fitness. Even though more and more science focusing on postmenopausal women shows muscle has the greatest influence on numerous components of health, we’re still drawn to “cardio.”

 Have you reached a point where what you’re doing isn’t working, yet found yourself reluctant to exchange cardio for strength training? If so, the following 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 for muscle maintenance, decline during the menopause transition, fat tends to increase and muscle loss becomes pronounced.1

One reason cardio doesn’t “burn the fat” or boost metabolism is that with the decline of sex hormones, women become more susceptible to the negative effects of stress.2 Cardio, in the way we’ve always done it, tends to increase stress.3

At the same time, women become more insulin resistant. A body under stress stores fat as a form of self-preservation. It can’t both burn and store it. The stress hormone cortisol and insulin team up to increase fat deposits around the belly. At midlife, doing more cardio to lose weight may actually cause more belly fat. 

Short walks, even longer hikes or short bursts of high intensity can certainly reduce the overall stress impact of exercise by keeping the stress positive. And positive stress 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 activities don’t influence fat-burning beyond the activity. They don’t increase muscle mass.

Exercise that increases lean muscle mass will not only improve body composition4 but ease many of the symptoms of menopause and increase the chances of enjoying a healthy lifespan. These benefits go far beyond just decreasing the risk of falls.

You’ve been robbed

Muscle loss begins at about age 30. Studies vary in their findings on rate of loss, showing approximately 3–8 percent per decade or up to 1 percent annually after age 30, but they agree this rate is even higher both during the menopause transition and after age 60. In severe instances, there is a 50 percent total muscle loss by age 80.5

Muscle mass losses alter body composition (less muscle means a higher percentage of 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 over the long term it can lead to type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and osteoporosis.6

Recent history’s effects on muscle and health

Though we’re past the worst of the pandemic, we’re going to see consequences of the pandemic for years. In the US, about 42 percent of the population gained weight, an average of 29 lb, during the first year of the pandemic alone.7

It wasn’t muscle. Gyms were closed. Dumbbells weren’t available. For women undergoing the menopause transition, when muscle and bone loss can accelerate significantly,8 ignoring muscle training leads to a 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.

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:

  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Hot flashes 
  • Night sweats 
  • Weight/fat gain
  • Bone loss
  • Loss of muscle tone
  • Belly fat
  • Insulin resistance 

Muscle and muscle-building activity, or resistance training, have been shown to improve each and every one of these symptoms.9 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 linked to many diseases, particularly Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Often termed “type 3 diabetes,” AD is also a result of poorly controlled blood sugar. There’s a direct correlation between amount of muscle mass and risk of AD and dementia, and at age 65 a woman’s risk of developing AD is one in five.

Many of us are going to outlive the men in our lives, and we’re going to need our strength to retain our 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 using a scale alone. Invest in a smart scale, one that measures body fat percentage at the least. If it gives you muscle mass in pounds or kilograms, even better. You can easily calculate muscle mass yourself if you know your weight and percentage of body fat.

Don’t make the mistake of using a one-off BMI (body mass index) number as a measure of body composition. You don’t know if your muscle mass is going up, going down or staying the same with BMI.

When you know, you can modify your exercise or lifestyle habits to support your muscle. It’s better to check this regularly than to find out annually or occasionally from the doctor or a gym.

Strength training exercises to try

Once you’ve decided to give strength training a shot, you may be wondering which exercises are the most efficient for building muscle. These are some good options.

Compound exercises work multiple muscles and joints at the same time in a manner that more closely reflects activities of daily life:

  • Squats 
  • Lunges
  • Deadlifts
  • Bent over, standing or seated row
  • Chest press 
  • Lat pull-down or pull-up
  • Isolation exercises focus on specific muscles to develop them further:
  • Bicep curls
  • Tricep press
  • Hamstring curls
  • Muscle-building tips

To gain muscle, you need strength or resistance training. Women need strength training more than they need cardio and even more than men. And women 50 or older need strength training more than women aged 30.

Begin strength training twice weekly if you’re not doing so already. After a period of adaptation, aim to reach temporary muscle fatigue with each set as described in the following steps. 

Begin with one set of weights you can lift 15–20 times. 

Progress after one or two weeks to weights you can lift only 12–15 times. 

Progress to two sets after one or two weeks.

Alternate increasing weight, repetitions or sets (change only one at a time).

Maintain a regular strength training habit of three or more sets twice a week. Prioritize sleep and consume high-quality protein throughout the day for the best results.

Work up to twice-weekly total body sessions with at least three sets of eight to 10 muscle groups using weights that are as heavy as you can safely manage. You’ll feel your energy and thus your overall total energy expenditure go up because you’ve increased strength without undue fatigue and soreness.10

For midlife women, this sweet spot for gaining lean muscle is the key to something that upgrades your life and can be maintained for life. 

Long-term wins

When women strength train, their future changes for the better. In one study, after following exercise programs focused on resistance training rather than weight or fat loss, a group of postmenopausal women maintained their weight and body composition over a six-year period. By comparison, subjects showing low levels of participation or following cardio-only programs experienced significant increases in weight, body fat and belly fat.4

As 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, it’s exercise with strength training as its foundation.

References

Debra Atkinson, MS, CSCS, is CEO of Flipping 50 and creator of the Flipping 50 Menopause Fitness Specialist course for trainers and health coaches. She is a medical exercise specialist with nearly four decades of experience. Her career has included teaching kinesiology at Iowa State University, giving international presentations to fitness professionals for major fitness associations, and serving as a subject matter expert for the American Council on Exercise.

She’s a sought-after speaker for reframing aging and teaching how to do it, and her TEDx talk is “Everything Women in Menopause Learned about Exercise May Be a Lie.”

References

1 

J Midlife Health, 2021; 12(3): 187–92

2 

Menopause, 2006; 13(2): 212–21

3 

J Exerc Nutr, 2021; 4(4): 19

4 

Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2010; 42(7): 1286–95

5

Ageing Res Rev, 2018; 47: 123–32

6

Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, 2004; 7(4): 405–10

7

American Psychological Association, “Slightly More Than 6 in 10 US Adults (61%) Report Undesired Weight Change since Start of Pandemic,” 2021, apa.org

8

J Cachexia Sarcopenia Muscle, 2020; 11(3): 698–709

9

J Strength Cond Res, 2013; 27(8): 2225–34; Maturitas, 2019; 126: 55–60; Climacteric, 2022; 25(3): 264–70; BMC Women’s Health, 2022; 22, art 320; Diabetol Metab Syndr, 2020; 12, art 14; Scientific Reports, 2020; 10, art 17548; J Bone Miner Res, 2018; 33(2): 211–20; Prz Menopauzalny, 2015; 14(1): 59–64

10

J Strength Cond Res, 2013; 27(8): 2225–34

Article Topics: fitness, muscle, Women's health
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