Every woman experiences menopause differently but the progressive loss of muscle mass is something that affects everyone, and this can lead to a lack of stability, strength, and mobility.
Although the process to build muscles after menopause is more of a challenge, it’s not impossible. With the right exercises and nutrition, you can maintain muscle mass well past the age of 50.
The Effect of Menopause on the Body
During menopause, your body stops producing high levels of the reproductive hormones oestrogen and progesterone. These hormones control your menstrual cycle and influence several other bodily functions, such as the usage of calcium and the maintenance of cholesterol levels.
The changes in hormone production can lead to symptoms like low energy levels, insomnia, mood swings, and weight gain. This may sound daunting, but with the right approach to fitness and nutrition, you can ease the transition and maintain an active, healthy lifestyle.
Exercise can be a hugely beneficial part of your journey through menopause. It can alleviate the effects of losing muscle mass and bone density by strengthening your joints, keeping your cardiovascular system in working order, and burning excess fat. It can help stave off insomnia, depression, and the “hot flashes” associated with menopause.
Bulking Up vs Building Muscle Strength
There is a common misconception that building muscle strength means you’re going to end up with huge, bulging muscles. In truth, there is a big difference between bulking up and building muscle strength. Bulking up is the process whereby you induce hypertrophy in your muscles, leading to a significant increase in the size of muscle cells.
In contrast, building muscle strength, especially during menopause, means increasing the density of your muscle tissue and improving the functional ability of your muscles. Each process requires a different approach to strength training and diet.
During menopause, you’ll want to prioritise on building strength over size.
This means you’ll likely be doing higher intensity exercises with longer breaks in between. The benefits of strength training for menopausal women include offsetting loss of bone density, lowering body fat content, improving functional strength, lowering the risk of age-related disease, decreasing joint pain, regulating your metabolism, and improving mental health.
Muscle-Building Exercises for Women Over 50
High-intensity, low-impact, and low-repetition exercises help build and maintain strength, balance, and coordination. This is highly beneficial for women over 50, as these traits tend to decline after menopause. These exercises are designed to provide a holistic approach to strength training, ensuring that no muscle group is neglected.
- Forearm planks: This exercise works on your core and shoulder muscles, improving stability and balance. On a mat, begin by placing your forearms shoulder-width apart beneath you. Your elbows should be directly beneath your shoulders. Lift your body off of the floor while keeping your core engaged. Try to avoid raising your hips, instead keep your back flat and your body straight. Bring your knees down to the ground if you start to feel too much strain on your lower back. Aim to hold this pose for 30 seconds or as long as you can, keeping your core engaged.
- Squats: This targets your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Take note of proper form to avoid damaging your knees. While standing, place your feet hip-width apart. Ensure that your toes, knees, and hips are pointing ahead of you. Slowly bend your knees, keeping your weight on your heels, and lower yourself into a squat position. Perform 2-3 sets of 10-12 repetitions. If your knees start to hurt, adjust the placement of your feet, ensuring they are hip-width apart.
- Chest fly: For a more dynamic workout, do this on a stability ball. This exercise targets your pectorals, glutes, back, and abdominal muscles. Hold a pair of 3-8lb dumbbells up to your chest while resting your shoulders and head on the stability ball. Keep your stomach and thighs parallel to the ground, with your feet hip-width apart on the ground. Lift the dumbbells straight up with your palms facing each other. From there, bend your elbows slightly and slowly lower the dumbbells outward until they’re level with your chest. Raise them back up, and repeat.
- Modified push-up: This works on your shoulder, arm, and core strength. With your knees on the mat, tuck your toes, place your hands under your shoulders, and slowly lower yourself to the mat, then push yourself back up. Make sure to keep your back lengthened throughout the exercise.
Nutritional Needs Change with Age
With the natural decline in bone density, muscle mass, and cognitive function, there are three essential nutrients that should feature prominently in your diet once you reach menopause.
- Calcium: is essential to prevent loss of bone density and osteoporosis.
- Protein: the older you get, the more protein your muscles need to stay healthy and strong. This need not come from meat, as there are plenty of protein-rich plant-based foods you can include in your diet.
- Healthy fats: you need plenty of healthy fats to keep your heart and brain functioning optimally. In contrast, saturated fats found in baked goods, butter, and fried food may increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
What to Eat to Boost and Retain Muscle Mass
When it comes to muscular health, protein is your best friend.
Try to get protein from plants or lean meats, as red meat is high in saturated fats. Some great sources of protein for women over 50 include fatty fish such as salmon, grilled chicken, soy, oats, lentils, broccoli, and quinoa.
Fatty fish also contains essential omega oils that slow cognitive decline, keeping diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s at bay.
Women over 50 should generally be eating 60-80 grams of protein per day, depending on their weight. A single serving of salmon contains roughly 20 grams of protein, so try to work at least one protein-rich food into every meal.
You can also use supplements to boost your nutritional intake, to assist in metabolising nutrients and ensure your body gets exactly what it needs. Supplements aren’t a replacement for healthy food, but they’re an excellent complement to a muscle-retaining diet.
Menopause isn’t the end of muscle mass and strength. It just requires a different approach to exercise and nutrition to get the results you want. You may have to work a little harder and change your diet a bit, but the health benefits are worth it.