There’s nothing especially magic about living well: The steps we need to take are logical and pretty well-known. But that doesn’t mean a health overhaul comes easy. Too often, despite our best intentions, the pounds pile on. Muscles turn to Jell-O. Stress rules the roost, and sleep is a fitful exercise in tossing and turning and checking the smartphone at 3 a.m.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The difference between failure and success boils down to approach and mindset, to selecting the right habits to tweak and -- crucially -- using the latest science to kick out bad habits and forge better, long-lasting new ones.
Most important of all: This isn’t a temporary fix. It’s a new -- and far more rewarding -- way of living. Read on if you're ready to get started.
Many people despair to see the number on the scale creep up as they grow older. But they don’t realize that as they’re gaining weight, they’re losing something too: muscle.
A small amount of muscle loss is nearly inevitable with age. While the rate varies quite a bit, studies suggest the average person loses about 1% of muscle every year after about age 50, says Dr. Elena Volpi , director of the Sealy Center on Aging at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
The causes are complex. Lower levels of testosterone and estrogen in older people mean the body maintains less muscle. A person’s genes influence how much they’re likely to lose. Getting sick or injured, and particularly spending time in the hospital, can shrink muscles. So can inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.
Plus, yo-yo diets will always cause people to lose at least a bit of muscle, and they tend to regain those pounds in the form of fat.
Laziness is a big cause of muscle loss. “You don’t use it, you lose it,” says Miriam Nelson , director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and author of the bestselling book “Strong Women Stay Young.”
That’s bad news, not just because it makes it harder to lift a heavy suitcase or wriggling grandchild. Muscle helps burn calories, and it acts as a storage depot for crucial proteins that help you recover from injury or illness.
Still, there’s hope. “Even into your 90s, you can regain muscle mass,” Nelson says.
Exercise is the way to go — specifically resistance exercises such as weight training, two or three times a week. Free weights and exercises that make you heft your own body weight, such as squats and sit-ups, can do the job. In studies, Nelson and her colleagues have found that resistance training like this improved strength, balance and muscle mass in older women.
To avoid injury — particularly for those who are out of shape or have other health problems — Volpi and Nelson recommend supervision. That can mean using a personal trainer or joining a program at a YMCA or senior center.
Getting enough protein is key to maintaining or building muscle. In the Health ABC Study , a large study of older adults, those who kept their muscle were the ones who ate the most protein. Most people get plenty through their diets; Volpi recommends 20 to 30 grams at each meal (that’s something like a small burger or a few eggs). It’s best to spread that protein intake across your three daily meals rather than having it all at dinner, she adds.
If you’re getting that, protein supplements like powders or shakes won’t help, Nelson says. But supplements might be an option for people who don’t eat enough protein. It might also help those who are ill or recovering from disease, Volpi says.
Testosterone injections might help maintain muscle in men with low levels of this hormone, she adds.