The recent pandemic-induced shift from office life to work-from-home life to ‘hoteling’ and hybrid schedules (and possibly back again) has wreaked havoc on old routines, with our muscles taking a particularly big hit. Even if you were ‘keeping it tight’ and working out regularly pre-pandemic, chances are, your muscular fitness and mass may have slipped a bit over the past 18 months. 

Unfortunately, all that muscular down time is associated with increased cancer risk, depression, lower cognitive ability, prediabetic blood sugar levels (even if you’re at a healthy weight), diminished sex life and reproductive health, sleep disruption and insomnia, disk degeneration and resulting back pain. All the makings of a physiological hot mess – so it’s time to flip the script. With gyms open again, outdoor fitness classes in every park and plenty of virtual classes or in-home classes to tune into, there are more muscle-building options than ever – which makes now a good time to start building your muscles back to pre-pandemic levels. Here’s how to help yourself get back in the game:

1) Strength – or lack thereof – in numbers.

Pandemic losses aside, not feeling as naturally strong as you did a decade ago? There’s a reason for that, and when it comes to muscles, it’s kind of a bad news/good news thing. On the downside, declining muscle mass is, unfortunately, a natural part of the aging process, with most of us losing roughly 1% of muscle mass each year after the big “4-0”, and about 8 -10% more loss with each passing decade. By the time you hit your mid-sixties, thanks to ‘sarcopenia’ or age-related muscular deterioration, you’re probably working with about half the muscle mass you had during your college years (so it’s no wonder granny may need help carrying the groceries). 

2) Curb your enthusiasm (a little) – and slow the slide

The good news, however, is that you can slow the slide and actually build muscle at any age, as long as you’re smart about it, and by that we mean avoiding injury. After too many months on your duff though, don’t expect to return to your old routine at 100 mph. Start/re-start sloooooow, to minimize muscle strains, joint sprains or worse. The last thing you need now is another three months off to recuperate from torn knee ligaments. Another reason to start slow? Besides dragging health down in general, injury triggers the kind of low-grade inflammation that can age you before your time. So, if something hurts, don’t do it. 

3) Call in a pro.

It’s been 18 months since many of us have seen the inside of a gym, so instead of doing it all on your own, swallow your pride, open your wallet and sign on for a few ‘refresher course’ sessions with a qualified trainer. (Hey, we all get rusty over time.) Lean on their expertise and develop a sensible program to ease you back into a strength-training groove. Think muscle preservation and protection vs. pummeling. Over 40? Then double check that your trainer’s got experience training older clients, to reduce the likelihood of injury from doing too much, too soon. Whether you wind up training virtually or in-person, the approach should be the same: let a pro show you the ropes, go slow and always handle yourself with care. 

4) Take the two-pronged approach. 

To build and maintain muscle mass, and stave off sarcopenia –the muscular equivalent of osteoporosis – your best bet is to take a two-pronged approach, which means both cardio and muscle work. Strengthen muscles with resistance training, alternating with aerobic movement to increase blood flow to the capillaries, which will bring more oxygen to the muscles and help build your endurance. Again, take it slow. Diving into strength training (or cardio) full-throttle from a de-conditioned state is the fast-track to injury.

5) Make the right moves.

Love to jog but hoisting kettle bells and dumbbells on the training floor not really your thing? Keep up the cardio regardless, but if you’re free-weights-phobic, then build strength by doing resistance exercises that use your own body weight to get the job done. Classics like planks, step-ups, mountain climbers, pull-ups, burpees, squats and push-ups will fire up your muscles, as will yoga and Pilates. 

Not enough time to alternate cardio with strength days? Then consider compound or ‘hybrid exercises’ that get the heart rate up while also building strength, like this simple one created by noted University of Alabama muscle researcher Marcas Bamman PhD: 

  • Choose five strength exercises that work major muscle groups — such as weighted squats, lunges, dead lifts, rows, and bench presses — and do three sets of 8 – 12 reps. 
  • Instead of resting between sets, without taking a break, switch over to doing 60 seconds of any body weight exercise, like jumping jacks, burpees, mountain climbers, push-ups, or pull-ups. 

Another option is to get into High Intensity Interval Training or ‘HIIT’ – an approach that alternates between short bouts bursts of activity and recovery. This simple three-phase routine can be applied to virtually any type of exercise:

  • Ramp up for 1 minute.
  • Microburst – by going hard for 1 minute.
  • Recover – by dropping back down to a comfortable pace for 3 minutes. 
  • Repeat – by doing 3 – 5 rounds, adding more rounds as you gain strength over a course of days or weeks. 

6) Support muscle mass with muscle-loving foods.

To slow muscle deterioration as you age, protein is an excellent defense. Individual protein needs vary quite a bit by weight, activity level and gender, but you can estimate your needs using this basic equation: Divide your body weight in half and subtract 10. The number you get will be the approximate number of protein grams you should eat daily. So, for example, if you weigh 180 lbs, half of that is 90, minus 10 = 80 grams of high-quality protein spread over the course of a day. (Note: Those with renal issues should check with their doctor to determine an appropriate daily protein intake for their specific needs.)

Among the everyday animal products that will help with muscle development: eggs, chicken breasts, beef and salmon. Just be sure to buy the majority of it from organic producers or farmers’ markets whenever possible to get the best quality protein you can afford. 

I am also a big fan of collagen powder, especially for older folks. Research has shown that consuming collagen supplements can increase muscle growth and strength in people with age-related muscle mass loss. And the amino acid profile of collagen is such, that it does not impact the mTOR pathway in a way that negatively affects aging

7) Add non-animal protein to the muscle mass mix.

While animal products are helpful for building muscle, try to get the bulk of your daily protein from non-meat/plant sources. Though there’s nothing wrong with eating animal products from healthy animals, I always recommend going heavy on plants, and treat meats and poultry more like a condiment or an accent to your meals rather than the main event. 

A few good plant protein sources include protein powder made with pea protein; white beans, black beans, chickpeas and lentils; chia seeds; green peas; spirulina; leafy greens like kale, spinach, bok choy, broccoli and asparagus. Again, here too, organic or farmers’ market options are the way to go. 

8) Boost your nutrition in a healthy way.

Ideally, everyone should shoot to get the majority of their nutrients from fresh, whole, organic, non-GM veggies, legumes and some low sugar fruits. But, if you are trying to win back some of the muscular losses of the past 18 months, strategic supplementation can help – and we’re not talking those giant tubs of crazy body-building powders at your local GNC! We’re talking supportive supplements for overall health that also help fill in the nutritional gaps, which can be particularly helpful in middle age and for older adults who may not be eating enough of the right foods. Worth considering are a few supplements that have shown promise in preserving and supporting muscle mass, like omega-3 EPA/DHA; vitamin D; carnitine; glutamine and B12/folic acid.

And a final thought on how to nurture your muscles? Sleep! Not sleeping well or enough will undermine your will to keep up the good work, so don’t let fatigue get in your way.

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