How to Save Muscle As You Age

Food and fitness for your 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond

Man and woman with weights

Like it or not, we all start losing muscle mass at a rate of 1 percent per year after age 30. That’s why your diet in your 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond should not look the same as it did when you were younger, says Susan Williams, MD, a physician in Cleveland Clinic’s Endocrinology and Metabolism Institute.

Although skipping breakfast, eating fast food and being inactive in your 20s and early 30s might not hurt your health in the short term, they will take their toll over time. “The 30s are the time when you can really get ahead of the game in terms of embracing good nutritional habits,” Dr. Williams says. Your body will thank you later.

What to eat as you age

Whether you’re 30 or 50, Dr. Williams offers a couple of tips to get started:

  • Maintain a normal weight, because a rollercoaster of weight gain and loss can change your body composition and leave you with more fat mass and less lean muscle mass.
  • Eat three balanced meals a day, with limited snacks in between. The word “balanced” is especially important because eating a wide variety of foods will help you prevent nutritional deficiencies. The Mediterranean Diet can serve as a good guide.

Dr. Williams suggests this simple shopping list:

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  • Lean proteins, such as chicken, white fish, oily fish like salmon, red meat (less frequently than other protein), eggs and tuna fish.
  • Whole grains, including multigrain breads, and long-cooking rice or oats.
  • Veggies, fresh or fresh frozen. Choose what’s in season and enjoy a variety to get the vitamins and minerals your body needs.
  • Fruit. Fresh fruit is best, followed by frozen. Canned fruit can be OK, but choose options in light syrup or water. Check the label and avoid added sugar.
  • Dairy, especially milk. Choose yogurts, cheeses and cottage cheese that are low-fat or fat-free.

“Muscles in your body are a use-or-lose proposition. You need to use them to keep them strong.”

Steer clear of cookies, cakes, pies, ice creams, juices and rich desserts. If that sounds like no fun, Dr. Williams advises treating these foods as treats. Save them for dining out or special occasions, but don’t make them part of your daily diet.

Muscles: Use them or lose them

Eating protein and being physically active are equal partners in the quest for maximum health, Dr. Williams says. Muscles are made of protein, but simply eating protein is not enough to save them.

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“Muscles in your body are a use-or-lose proposition,” she says. “You need to use them to keep them strong.”

Can’t carve out time for the gym? Try this daily routine:

  1. In the morning, stretch for 10 minutes.
  2. At lunch, eat and then walk for 10 minutes.
  3. After dinner, spend 10 minutes with stretch bands or light weights.

Even a half hour of physical activity can make a world of difference, especially if you make it a habit in your 30s. “Don’t let your weight creep up while your muscle mass creeps down over your 30s and 40s,” Dr. Williams says. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to get started — and the more muscle you will have already lost. 

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