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Why You Need to Build More Muscle Now
Jul. 08, 2022
So many reasons, but for starters, it can help you live longer.
We all know that muscle is important. There are more than 600 muscles in the body, each playing a crucial role. “Muscle supports our bones and keeps our back, hips, and necks aligned and pain free,” explains Michele Olson, PhD, CSCS, a senior clinical professor of sports science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. “Muscle tissue also comprises all of our vital organs,” including the heart, liver, and kidneys, and exercise (along with proper eating) “helps keep these muscle-laden tissues strong and healthy.”
Building muscle becomes even more paramount as you age. Women lose roughly 10 to 15 percent of their strength every decade in middle age, according to a review in Sports Health. A likely contributing factor: perimenopause, the years when a woman transitions into menopause. During this time, a woman experiences a wealth of bodily changes including hot flashes, trouble sleeping, a slower metabolism and weight gain, particularly around the abdomen (hello middle age spread!). These changes are due to fluctuations in hormones, such as estrogen, which primarily comes from the ovaries.
A quick refresher: Women are born with about 1-2 million eggs. By puberty, that number decreases to 300-500,000. By age 51, the average age of menopause, that number is down to about 1,000. Why is this important? Well, “as the number of eggs remaining in the ovaries decreases, so does the amount of estrogen that is produced,” explains Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, an OBGYN, certified trainer and owner of PostpartumTrainer.com. “The decrease in estrogen negatively affects bone health and muscle mass, increasing the risk for osteopenia (bone loss) and sarcopenia (muscle loss).”
Yes, it sucks that at a time when your weight is likely to increase, your fat-burning furnace (AKA muscle) begins betraying you. What sucks even more is the amount in which it does. According to a study in the journal JCI Insight, which looked at the body composition of women over an 18-year period from before the onset of perimenopause until after their last period, and is based on the SWAN study, a multi-site longitudinal, epidemiologic study designed to examine the health of women during their middle years, women’s fat doubled during perimenopause as lean body mass decreased.
Inactivity, according to Olson, is one of the reasons behind the muscle loss. “The anabolic hormones that rise with exercise are lost if you let the lethargy of menopause slow you down and reduce your exercise efforts,” she says. “The calories burned for weight training and exercise in general keeps our weight intact and helps prevent fat gain,” Olson says.
Strength Training is Key
Regular exercise—this includes strength training—can increase natural testosterone levels and potentially mitigate the effects of muscle and bone loss, says Dr. Robles. “Menopausal women can build muscle, just not at the same rate they were able to before menopause.”
Dr. Robles also says exercise has been shown to improve the well-being and quality of life in women with menopausal symptoms. What’s more, research published in Maturitis revealed that women who engaged in a 15-week resistance training program (three 45-minute sessions weekly) experienced fewer hot flashes than those who did not hit the weight rack.
More than helping to lessen the severity of issues that spring up with perimenopause and menopause, lifting weights is just plain good for you. According to research from the University of Michigan, people with stronger muscles are 50 percent more likely to live longer. They are also 40 to 70 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke, if they weight train an hour a week, than folks who don’t, says a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
On the mental front, “it may help reduce the intensity of negative feelings associated with the symptoms of perimenopause, perhaps even including depression,” explains Yen Hope Tran, DO, OB/GYN at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA. “This is due to an overall increase in health and pain tolerance from the strength training, not any particular effect on perimenopause itself.”
Women Seem to Strength Train Less as They Enter Middle Age
Often, it comes down to priorities. Women put theirs on the back burner and bring other people’s needs—like family and work obligations—to the forefront. “However, women need to understand that no one is going to look out for them more than they can, and it's essential that they start making the time to build a stronger version of themselves,” says Dr. Robles.
A stronger version via progressive strength training, according to a review of 121 studies, doesn’t just mean muscle and strength gains, but rather improved performance in the simplest everyday tasks such as walking, climbing steps, or standing up from a chair more quickly.
What Exactly Should Your Strength Session Look Like?
First, Dr. Tran suggests consulting your physician before embarking on a new exercise regimen. Once that’s ticked off your list, if you haven’t already been exercising, Dr. Robles advocates starting with short workouts because they are easy to adhere to and do not require a big commitment. “Something is always better than nothing, even if it's just 10 minutes a few times a week.” Ultimately, though, aim to follow national health guidelines: a minimum of two moderate strength-training sessions per week, involving all muscle groups.
When it comes to designing a strength-training program to help balance out the effects of perimenopause and menopause, Olson suggests high-intensity workouts featuring high reps with moderate weight or high resistance with lower reps. But her preference is three full-body strength sessions weekly, using a weight that maxes you out in 15 reps. Exercises should include snatches, squat thrusters, lunges, and push-ups coupled with bench presses, Olson adds.
The bottom line: Whether or not making muscle was a top priority before you hit your 40s, now that you’re in this fourth decade (or beyond), shoring up your strength should definitely be a goal now.
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