Medically reviewed by Leann Poston, M.D. on 9/23/20
It’s common wisdom that building muscle becomes more difficult as we age. This seems particularly pronounced at age 50 and beyond, though it can begin even earlier in some people. Building muscle is always a mix of diet, exercise, training, and hard work at any age. But there are several specific considerations and additional challenges that come into play for older adults.
With all of that said, however, it is entirely possible to maintain and even build muscle after 50, 60, and beyond. Even if you’ve not been particularly fit or focused on building muscle in the past, it’s never too late to start. Of course, there are health considerations, especially as you get older, so it’s wise to consult your doctor or healthcare provider before undertaking any muscle building regimen or fitness routine. You don’t want to end up injuring yourself on your quest to get fitter and stay healthier, as that would be quite counterproductive.
Maintaining and building muscle is well worth it, especially for older adults. It helps with overall physical health, strength, flexibility, balance, and fitness. Having strong, well-defined muscles improves circulation and heart health, and can boost the immune system as well. Naturally, the biggest advantage is in maintaining the health of related systems, such as joints and bones, which also tend to become more brittle and less flexible or resilient as we age. Muscle building helps older adults maintain mobility and independence as they age, and can play a meaningful role in determining the quality of life, brain function, mental health, and overall well-being at 50, 60, 70, and beyond.
Part of the difficulty of building muscle after 50 is biological. After our physical “prime,” we start to lose muscle mass. On average, adults gain a few pounds per year after their 20s or 30s and lose around 1-2% of their muscle mass per year. This damage can be considered cumulative, meaning by the time you reach 50 or 60, you can end up a lot heavier and more out of shape than you once were, with significantly decreased muscle mass. Add to this the natural fatigue, decreased energy, and often pain or injuries that come with aging, and it can be even more difficult to stay in shape, keep the pounds off, and have a well-toned body.
Life events exacerbate this problem. As we age, we tend to be more sedentary and have more and more demands on our time. Even people with a natural motivation to work out tend to do so less frequently and for shorter durations as the years go by. The biological aspect of muscle loss (technically known as sarcopenia) almost always shares some to a lot of blame with lifestyle factors for decreased muscle, increased weight, and decreased fitness in older adults.
The good news is there are plenty of steps that you can take as an older adult to maintain the muscle mass you currently have, build more muscle, drop excess weight, and get in better shape. It may be more challenging than in your youth, as muscle mass tends to peak around 40 years old and decline steadily after that. But it’s absolutely possible, without becoming a gym rat or fitness junkie, and is well worth the effort for your health and well-being.
Diet and nutrition are a critical aspect of building muscle and maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding weight gain. A healthy diet provides numerous health benefits, but for the purposes of this guide, we really want to focus on the role of diet and nutrition as it related to muscle health. For optimal muscle mass, you need to consider a few key aspects of your diet. Specifically:
Equally important and worth a mention: no matter what your fitness level or how intense a workout or exercise routine you may be considering, always get enough fluids and stay hydrated!
Maintaining and building muscle requires two distinct types of physical activity: general exercise or cardio, and strength and weight training. Put another way, you need both aerobic exercise and anaerobic challenges to your body in order to have the energy and physical stimulation needed to repair, rebuild, and add muscle mass to your body.
General physical fitness exercises, including calisthenics, walking/running, swimming, cycling, hiking, jumping rope, and similar all help improve cardiac workload, breathing, and stamina. They also burn calories and condition your body into a higher-performing state, ensuring that you are more readily able to complete strength and weight training without injuring yourself or encountering serious health problems. Regular exercise of 20 to 30 minutes a day, even of a low intensity, can help prime your body to be ready to build muscle.
The second part of the exercise equation for building muscle is strength and weight training. Exercises that focus on multiple joint movements and weight lifting are most effective in this regard. Some examples include:
As always, you should start with less weight rather than more, and work your way up to a comfortable level. It’s also been pointed out by numerous fitness experts that strength and weight training is a bit different when you are an older adult. Younger people tend to benefit more from a single intense workout focused on one muscle group, with long periods of rest in between for that group. Older adults seem to benefit more from a more diverse workout, at a lower intensity, with fewer days in between – such as alternating every other day.
If you aren’t familiar with strength or weight training, don’t have the equipment, and don’t know how much weight is too much – don’t worry. Almost every gym around, both paid and free/community center-based, have staff members or personal trainers who can help you out. It’s better to spend a little time and money learning how to do these exercises and use this equipment properly, rather than injure yourself and give up on building muscle and staying healthy.
Too often, recovery is overlooked, but it’s a vital part of the overall muscle-building routine. Despite common misconceptions, you don’t build muscle during your actual workout. Rather, it’s during the recovery periods, in between workouts, when the muscles repair, rebuild and increase in mass. This means observing sufficient time between workouts, for a start. Most experts agree that 3 to 4 sessions per week, on alternate days, is really the best schedule for building muscle over 50 years of age.
Ingesting protein shortly after your workout can also help ensure you get the optimal muscle growth rate following your workout. Once again, remember to stay hydrated, too! Your muscles, like your body as a whole, are made up largely of water. Insufficient hydration can not only lead to headaches, cramps, or body aches following a workout but can stifle the muscle building you are trying to accomplish.
You may also want to consider supplements to be taken on a regular basis, or specifically to recover from workouts, to aid you in your muscle-building quest.
Finally, part of recovery, as well as preparation for future workouts, is to ensure that you get sufficient, good quality sleep – 8 to 9 hours per night. That will allow your body to have enough energy for your fitness routine and provide it with sufficient time to conduct the natural reparative and restorative functions that help build muscle.
It is absolutely possible to build muscle after 50 – it’s just more challenging than for younger people. Decreased metabolism, increased weight, decreased energy levels, fatigue, aches and pains, and the natural muscle wasting that occurs after age 40 all combine to mean it takes a bit more work and effort to build muscle after age 50, but the benefits are well worth it.
General guidelines for adults over 50 suggest 20 minutes or so of exercise per day or about 150 minutes per week. Strength training and weight lifting routines should best be undertaken every other day and can consume most of that time, or even longer, depending on your fitness level and goals. Just be sure not to skimp on aerobic/cardio exercises and overdo it on strength training and weightlifting.
Toning your body goes hand-in-hand with building muscle. By improving your muscle mass through the methods discussed in this guide, you can improve skin health and appearance, decrease flab from across your body, and end up looking younger and healthier.
In conclusion, maintaining and building muscle mass at age 50 and beyond is a worthwhile goal. It helps with your overall health and provides several benefits to keep you healthy year after year. While it is admittedly more difficult to add muscle mass as an older adult, it’s by no means impossible. Dedication, some hard work and sweat, and addressing the four key areas discussed in our guide – diet and nutrition, exercise, strength and weight training, and recovery – will set you on the path to bulking up, reversing natural muscle loss due to aging, and keep you looking and feeling young and fit.
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.
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