Maintaining Muscle Mass

By Jamie Bussin

Some years ago, when I was still in my forties I had the opportunity to go to Canyon Ranch, a destination health spa in Tucson Arizona, on behalf of the magazine. It is a very (very) upscale resort where people go to lose weight, get healthy and recharge. They had all sorts of cutting edge treatments and programs. For a health and wellness publisher it was like being a kid in a candy store.

Before being allowed to participate in any of the programming I underwent a comprehensive fitness analysis  – which included filling out a multi-page questionnaire, a video recording of my footfall while running, a measure of my body fat using calipers and an interview. 

At that time I was running regularly. Most of my exercise was aerobic-focused, because (I thought at the time) it was crucial to keeping my weight off. I assumed that the training staff would rubber stamp my regimen. But that didn’t happen. I was told that at my age I should consider swapping out some of the running and spinning for resistance training – that I should start building more muscle – for two reasons. First, it would help with keeping my weight down, and second that my muscles were already atrophying – and second, as I got older the muscle mass loss would become more pronounced. 

Although I knew that muscle mass is important for longevity as it helps with balance and stability and protects and strengthens bones, it took me years until I listened to the advice. I frankly didn’t enjoy weight training and I was skeptical that I could keep the weight off. Eventually I saw the light and started to incorporate more and more resistance training to my regimen – from 40% (then) to 95% (now) of my workouts having at least some resistance component. And yet recently I’ve noticed that despite my best efforts it is becoming more and more difficult to maintain my muscle mass. I can still do so, but it requires more diligence and exertion on my part. 

I discussed the possible explanation with orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Erin Boynton, on episode #192 of the Tonic Talk Show. She confirmed that we attain our peak muscle mass at age 25 and that starting in our 30’s we may experience sarcopenia, wherein we can lose up to 3-6% of our muscle mass per decade as we age, if we don’t take steps to slow or reverse the process. Symptoms of sarcopenia include weakness, increased fatigue or muscle pain. Some people may experience difficulties with their balance. Sarcopenia is primarily caused by inactivity, which is certainly not my circumstance. However, there are other factors in its development; such as testosterone or insulin deficits, a decreased ability to convert protein into energy, not consuming enough calories to support muscle growth or a reduction in nerve cells sending signals from the brain to the muscles. 

Ideally we’re physically active throughout our lives. But if your muscle mass loss is being caused by inactivity the happy news is that you can slow, stop and even reverse the process by becoming more active – even in your later years. 

The idea of weight training might be daunting if you’ve never done it before. Dr. Boynton believes that doing body weight exercises, or perhaps exercises involving light weights (where light weights are defined as 10% or less of your total body weight) for 30 minutes several times a week, together with aerobic exercise (also 30 minutes several times a week) would be enough to prevent muscle mass loss. 

Of course, exercise is only part of the equation. It’s also important to get a good night’s sleep. That’s when the body recovers, repairs and builds muscles. And as you know from reading the last article in this series, I’m already working on getting more restful sleep. The other key component in the equation is the proper intake of protein which fuels our muscles. 

Two episodes of the Tonic Talk Show in Fall (Episodes #294 and #254) I discussed the mechanics of how our bodies take in protein and build muscle as well as protein supplementation with Master Herbalist, Joel Thuna. Protein is an essential micronutrient necessary to maintain our muscles, organs, bones and skin. And when we don’t take in enough protein through our diet our bodies will take it from within, starting with our own muscles. 

All proteins are created from a combination of 20 amino acids. How they are combined determines the type and function of the protein. Amino acids are involved in every action, reaction and activity in your body. Your body takes in proteins in the foods you eat, which in turn it breaks down into single free amino acids. It then recombines those single amino acids into new proteins which it stores and uses. 

Unfortunately, as we age, our body’s ability to process protein diminishes. We simply can’t digest and absorb protein as when we were younger. Empirically, for example, you may notice that you’re not able to eat as much steak as in your youth. Ironically, because of that inefficiency you might actually need to consume even more protein, and better quality protein, in order to preserve your muscle mass. 

The actual amount of protein one needs is unique and variable. It depends on your age, sex, size and health. However, for average healthy adults just trying to meet basic needs (so not those trying to build muscle or reach specific health goals) there are some benchmarks: 46 grams/day for women and 56 grams/day for men. Ideally, according to Joel, you want to get your protein from multiple sources of food or supplementation.

Joel advocates for high quality protein. Which begs the question, what is a high quality protein? There are three metrics. The first being quantity: Foods that contain more protein than others. Most foods, even those touted as being high in protein, actually don’t contain that much protein relative to their other constituents (such as fat, carbohydrates, fiber etc.). Supplements have higher concentrations of protein by their very nature. Hemp protein, for example, consists of 20-25% protein. Concentrates, such as pea-protein, consist of approximately 40-60% protein. At the top level you have isolates, such as whey isolates, which consist of approximately 80-95% protein. 

The second metric of protein quality is completeness. A complete protein is one that contains all of the nine essential amino acids that your body needs to repair and replace tissue. Generally speaking, animal-based proteins (dairy, meat, fish) are complete proteins. The exception is collagen which is not a complete protein. The only vegetarian complete protein is soy. 

The third metric of protein quality is the capability of the body to absorb, break down and repurpose the protein measured on three scales:  biological value,  protein digestibility corrected amino acid score,  and the digested and dispensable amino acids score. According to Joel, animal-based proteins score significantly better than plant-based proteins on these scales – as they are more likely to be complete proteins and contain Leucine, the specific amino acid most important to build muscle and repair tissue. While animal-based proteins are therefore preferable to build muscle mass, if you are vegetarian/vegan, you can still build muscle by combining complementary vegan-based isolates. 

Lastly, what about other nutrients? Vitamin D plays a vital role in muscle function. Adequate levels help with balance and strength of muscles. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that works to protect muscle cells from damaging free radicals. In addition, it works to aid in the formation of testosterone and other anabolic hormones.  Vitamins B6 and B12 have a direct role in protein metabolism. The higher the protein consumption, the more vitamin B6 is needed to support the metabolism of the increased protein intake. Fiber and water are also important in as much as they aid in the digestion process, and thus the better absorption of protein. 

Bottom line: If you’re looking to build or maintain your muscles – start with resistance training and good sources of protein, add in a good night’s sleep and some nutraceuticals to help the process.