Though it doesn’t command headlines the way osteoporosis does, a condition called sarcopenia causes muscle mass to slowly shrink with age—to the tune of about 1% per year after age 40, says Doug Paddon-Jones, PhD, a professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. And certain things you do (or don’t do) in the kitchen, at the gym, or between the sheets can accelerate the process. Here, 5 surprising muscle-wasters, and how to reverse them before it’s too late.
1. You’re back-loading your protein.
Imagine, for a minute, heading up a home construction project. How successful would you be if your building supplies arrived on the last day? When you start your day with high-carb choices like toast or a sugary breakfast cereal and cap it off with a huge serving of meat or plant protein at dinner, you’re essentially waiting till the last minute to provide your body most of its key muscle-building materials.
In a small study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Paddon-Jones asked a group of participants to consume 90 grams of protein per day, split two different ways. When they ate 30 grams each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they showed a 25% greater increase in protein muscle synthesis—the first step toward repairing and building new muscle—than when their protein intake was skewed to later in the day (10 grams at breakfast, 15 at lunch, 65 for dinner).
Try replacing some of the carbs in your breakfast with Greek yogurt or eggs to help spread your protein more evenly throughout the day, suggests Paddon-Jones. No time to cook in the morning? Try one of these 7 Classic Breakfasts Turned Into Smoothies, instead. And plan to get some protein—say, 10 to 15 grams—within 30 to 60 minutes of your workouts to maximize their muscle-building power.
2. You’re passing over the produce aisle.
Protein reigns supreme as a muscle-building macronutrient. But protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, and cheese—along with refined grains and salt—create acids inside your body that can start to eat away at muscle over time, notes a review article on diet and sarcopenia in the journal Osteoporosis International.
Fortunately, Mother Nature has provided a cure, says study co-author Ambrish Mithal, MD, of Medanta Medicity in Gurgaon, India. Fruits and vegetables supply potassium and magnesium that buffer these acids and protect your muscle tissue. What’s more, antioxidants in leafy greens and bright berries fight reactive oxygen species that can damage muscle fibers over time. Aim for at least 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit per day, Mithal advises.
3. You aren’t stepping up your body work.
You know you need some type of strengthening exercise to build muscle. But lift the same 5-pound dumbbells day after day, week after week, and you’ll plateau or even backslide, as the effects of age take over. “Muscles need continual overload to respond and get stronger,” says Paul Gordon, PhD, professor and chair of health, human performance and recreation at Baylor University in Waco, Texas and co-author of a recent research review on resistance training and aging in The American Journal of Medicine.
It’s what exercise experts call “progression,” and it means increasing the difficulty of your workout as you get stronger. If you’re brand-new to strength training, start with one day a week of moves that target your major muscle groups—legs, hips, back, abs, chest, shoulders, and arms—using weights that you can lift comfortably 15 to 20 times, Gordon advises. That way, you’ll learn the motions safely. Over time, increase the frequency and intensity of your workout until you’re hitting every major muscle group twice per week with weights you can lift only 10 to 12 times. Once that 12th rep feels easy, you’ll need to increase the challenge, says Gordon: Choose heavier dumbbells, body bars, or ankle weights to preserve your results. For extra motivation, try a workout DVD: Fitness trainer Michelle Lovitt can help you get the Ultimate Flat Belly with her expert toning plan (plus, it comes with a free resistance band!).
4. You’re skimping on sleep.
Pumping iron is just part of the equation: You also need downtime afterward so your body can repair and build new muscle. Most of this recovery happens during sleep, says Matthew Edlund, MD, director of the Center for Circadian Medicine in Sarasota, Florida, and author of The Power of Rest—especially the deep stages, when your body releases muscle-building human growth hormone.
Guidelines just released by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine advise adults to log at least 7 hours per day. But some people need even more. If you conk out the minute your head hits the pillow, you’re not getting enough, says Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, NE. Count backward from when you need to get up and book your bedtime like you would any other important appointment, setting aside the hour beforehand for quiet time so you can wind down. Harris suggests a family electronic curfew during that hour—even going so far as to put phones, laptops, and tablets in a box and creating a relaxing routine with books, music, or a warm bath instead.
5. You’re heading straight to the bar after barre.
A demanding sweat session can leave you feeling like you’ve earned that beer or glass of vino. But taking a belt immediately post-workout can interfere with your body’s recovery process, meaning you might not reap the rewards of all your hard work.
Booze can disrupt the flow of hormones that prompt your body to produce new muscle proteins, says Matthew Barnes, PhD, of Massey University in New Zealand. Plus, it can interfere with the normal inflammatory process your body uses to repair and strengthen muscle fibers.
You don’t have to teetotal to preserve muscle mass, Barnes says. Just wait an hour or so—or toast first with a non-alcoholic beverage and a post-workout snack containing protein and carbohydrate—so that your body has a chance to begin building new muscle.
Once you’ve rehydrated and refueled, you can celebrate with a glass of the good stuff.