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Keep the Muscle, Hold the Fat

I recently had the pleasure of attending a lecture by orthopedic surgeon Vonda Wright. I was also proud to endorse her book Fitness After 40, and as a 41 year old was inspired and encouraged by what she had to say.

I’ve been a fitness buff (not an extreme one—but I have consistently done basic weight training and walking–and just a bit of running–for years. I’ve also loved being active and playing sports with my sons. But one day, at the ripe age of almost 41, I woke up with pain in my left wrist that would keep my left arm out of commission (and wreak havoc with my spirits!) for more than 8 months. At first, a hand surgeon told me that an MRI showed synovitis—that’s inflammation, and was likely the result of one too many push ups and supporting all my body weight on my wrists. After 7 long months that included 3 months of hand therapy, 2 cortisone shots, splinting, anti-inflammatory meds, 3 hand surgeons, and lots of head scratching, a second MRI revealed a small ganglion cyst. I decided that since conservative treatment was not working, I would have the cyst surgically removed. I started therapy earlier today to regain function. My next goal is to get my strength (and biceps!) back so that I can grow old gracefully and feel as young on the outside as I do on the inside.

Because I know that as we get older, our muscle mass naturally wants to diminish and our fat mass wants to increase, and because I have a longer way to go than most to regain the strength I’d been building up for years, I was especially interested to learn how to reduce the likelihood of that happening.  Fortunately, it is possible to preserve muscle and keep fat at bay according to Dr. Wright. Here’s my recent interview with her. I hope after you read it you’ll be encouraged to take the steps she recommends to make the most of and keep what you have for years to come.

Can You Prevent a Mid-life Muscle Crisis?

If you don’t use it, will you really lose it? Is it a given that as you age, you’ll gain fat and lose muscle? These aren’t wives’ tales. But does that mean we should throw in the towel (or save it to collect our tears!), and accept our fate (unless we start doing some heavy lifting right now)?

“It’s true that after age 40, you naturally lose muscle mass–up to eight percent per decade” says Vonda Wright, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and author of Fitness After 40. (Full disclaimer: Vonda Wright is a spokesperson for Ensure.) “The good news is that although muscles can deteriorate with time, studies show muscle atrophy is reversible at any age” says Wright.

Wright thinks of muscles as celebrities that deserve special treatment. “Muscles help our bodies move, our hearts pump blood, and our organs work. The more they’re used, the better equipped they’ll be to support activity, keep your body strong, and slow–and possibly reverse–aging” she says.

The benefits don’t stop there. Wright says “Exercise also strengthens bones, and helps the body burn more calories.” Engaging in regular physical activity that includes aerobic, muscle- and bone-strengthening exercise may also help lower the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and some cancers (including colon and breast).

So can we really sidestep a mid-life muscle crisis?

F.A.C.E. Your Future: According to Wright, this means exercising smarter than we did when we were kids with a focus on Flexibility every day, Aerobic Exercise 3 to 5 times per week, Carrying a load (doing functional resistance training 2 to 3 times per week) and daily Equilibrium and balance training. She says “Start small by taking a brisk walk every day, or climbing stairs instead of using the elevator. These may sound trite, but simple, functional activities you do daily can dramatically rejuvenate your muscles” says Wright. She adds “Once these basics become habits, you can build from there.”

Raise the Bar. For regular exercisers, Wright recommends mixing it up. “Your body gets used to what you’re doing, so it’s important to tweak your routine and challenge your muscles in different ways” says Wright.  For example, if you usually walk, you can increase your pace or take a different path. Or you can try different modalities on a treadmill or instead, hop on a bike or elliptical machine.

Set Goals. Current Physical Activity Guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services (HHS) recommend that American adults aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity (such as brisk walking where you’re sweating but can still carry on a conversation) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (such as jogging or running). Muscle strengthening exercise that works all the major muscle groups is also recommended at least twice a week. Wright recommends seeing where you are, and setting small reasonable goals (for example, adding 5 minutes to a walk, or doing an additional set of bicep curls) until you meet your quota. She also believes those who are chained to a desk for more than 40 hours a week may need even more exercise.

Feed Your Muscles: Wright recommends a balanced diet that’s consistent with current Dietary Guidelines–one that’s loaded with protein-rich foods (including fish, skinless chicken, beef, and legumes), high fiber whole grains (such as whole wheat pasta, cereal, crackers, and brown rice), and colorful fiber-rich vegetables and fruits. This is a dietary pattern that provides fuel to support your brain and muscles. Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, recommends that active people should aim for about 0.5 to 0.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day (for a 150 pound person, that’s about 75 to 113 grams.)

Plan for Success: Wright sums it up well by saying “It’s an urban myth that life goes downhill when you get older. My 40s have been the best years of my life mentally, physically and professionally. These can be the best years of your life too. The key is to stop freaking out, and to plan for physical success just like we would for professional success.”

What do you do to stay fit and strong?

“Can You Prevent A Midlife Muscle Crisis” originally posted on

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About The Author

Elisa Zied is a nationally recognized and award-winning health and nutrition expert, author, speaker, and spokesperson. A trusted source of food, nutrition, and health information, Elisa has garnered millions of media impressions, lending her expertise and real-world perspective to dozens of TV shows, web sites, news organizations and magazines. She’s the author of four nutrition books. An avid walker, she loves motivating others to #moveitorloseit. A book lover, she recently earned a certificate in children’s literature from Stony Brook Southampton and is currently working on several young adult novels. You can find her previous Food, Fitness & Fiction posts here and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.