Changing body composition throughout your life isn’t unusual. For example, both men and women lose muscle mass and gain fat as we age. This loss of muscle tissue and strength that occurs with age is known as sarcopenia.
But did you know it’s also common for even young women to have low muscle mass? And more and more research studies are indicating that low muscle mass can negatively impact women’s health, including our metabolic health and hormones.
So, what causes your muscle mass to decline? And is there anything you can do to slow down the rate of decline? We’ll discuss all of these questions in this article.
Why Muscle Mass Matters in Women
Believe it or not, sarcopenia begins much earlier than many people might think – at the age of 30.1 How much muscle mass is lost varies from person to person, but research indicates that approximately 2% to 7% of muscle mass is lost every 10 years. This rate increases after you hit the age of 60.2
But age isn’t the only factor impacting muscle mass. Nutrition, exercise, illness, disuse, inflammation – and yes, changes in hormone levels – are all factors that can influence muscle mass and function.3
It also means muscle mass declines are much more significant for women. Both men and women achieve peak skeletal muscle mass and strength around 30 to 35 years of age, but the peak is still lower in women than it is in men. This means that women reach a critical level earlier than men do.
Women also undergo menopause, during which estrogen levels fall. Research indicates that muscle mass is lower in postmenopausal women than in premenopausal women. Therefore, menopause may be a critical time to implement strategies to mitigate changes in muscle mass and function.4
Does Muscle Mass Really Matter?
A decline in muscle mass can impact your overall health and longevity. Research has demonstrated that sarcopenia can lead to adverse health outcomes, such as:5
- Metabolic syndrome
- Wasting syndrome (i.e., cachexia)
- Loss of independence
Hormonal Imbalances Affect Muscle Mass
Hormones are chemical messengers vital for muscle growth and maintenance. They are either anabolic or catabolic. Anabolic hormones enable muscles to grow through a process called anabolism, which uses energy to build large molecules from smaller ones. Catabolic hormones, on the other hand, break down muscle and fat, releasing energy.
Anabolic hormones include:
- Insulin growth factor 1 (IGF1)
- Growth hormone
Catabolic hormones in your body include:
For muscle growth, you would need higher levels of anabolic hormones than catabolic hormones.
This means that hormonal imbalances, like that resulting from thyroid conditions and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), can affect your muscle mass.
For example, thyroid hormones have important roles in muscle physiology. A study published in 2020 reported that both high and low levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) were associated with sarcopenia in adults. Interestingly, the subjects of this study didn’t even have notable thyroid dysfunction.6 These findings suggest the importance of keeping your thyroid hormone levels in balance.
Another hormone important for muscle physiology is vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency increases with age, and it has been shown to be predictive of low muscle mass and strength in older men and women.7 One study from Australia found that low levels of vitamin D in elderly men were associated with an increased risk of sarcopenia.8
It’s important not to guess which of your hormones are out of balance though – I highly recommend working with a women’s hormone specialist.
How to Slow Down Muscle Mass and Strength Loss in Women
So, how can you slow down the loss of muscle mass? Here are some of my top tips.
Start Exercising to Boost Muscle Mass
In our society, it’s more common to see people reduce their physical activity as they get older. But a 2021 paper from Harvard researchers argued that humans actually didn’t evolve to reduce our physical activity with age.9
In other words, humans evolved to be active all our lives – putting up our feet in our twilight years is a rather recent change in human behavior.
You’re likely already familiar with the benefits of exercise. In addition to helping maintain muscle mass, physical activity helps promote health and longevity by:10
- Preventing weight gain
- Maintaining normal blood pressure
- Increasing high-density lipoproteins (“good” cholesterol)
- Lowering low-density lipoprotein (“bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides
- Reducing systemic inflammation
- Decreasing stress and boosting mood
- Stimulating the production of neurotransmitters
So, if you’ve avoided exercise all your life, there is no better time to start than now. Start off with low-impact workouts like yoga or swimming.
Lift Heavy Weights
If there’s one exercise myth that just won’t go away, it’s this one: Lifting weights makes women bulk up like men.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Women will not become bulky if they lift weights – even heavy ones.
Lifting heavy weights is an excellent way to build lean muscle and reduce fat. Yes, some women can grow large muscles, but this usually takes years of training and the right nutrition. Most people don’t put in the time and effort to build the bodybuilder physique.
To get the most out of your workouts, I recommend dynamic or functional strength training. Unlike traditional strength training in which focuses on specific muscle groups (e.g., “leg day”), functional strength training functional strength training involves full body movements. While both types are designed to improve your body’s function, moves used in functional strength training are much more dynamic and may better translate to your everyday life.
If you’re not sure how to begin strength training, I highly recommend working with a trainer to reduce your risk of injury.
Eat to Maintain and/or Build Muscle Mass
Protein matters for all women, but it’s especially important for menopausal and postmenopausal women.
But why? A concept paper by researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre proposed that your body’s appetite for protein increases during perimenopause. If these needs aren’t met, the body’s drive to reach its protein target will encourage you to compensate by consuming other forms of energy, like carbohydrates. This is known as the “Protein Leverage Effect.”11, 12
Because many women tend to become less active during menopause, they need to eat both less energy (carbs and fats) and more protein.13 The typical Western diet tends to result in excess energy consumption, which can lead to obesity and cardiovascular disease.
In short, you need protein to build and maintain muscle mass.
In one study, 387 healthy women aged 60 to 90 years were categorized into either a low protein group or a high protein group. The study found that the women in the low protein group had higher body fat and higher fat-to-lean body mass ratio than their counterparts. The women in the high protein group also displayed better physical function.14
While I don’t recommend fad diets, here are some foods with high protein concentrations:
- Meats, poultry, and fish
- Nuts and seeds
- Milk and high-quality dairy products
In general, proteins from animal sources are considered higher-quality proteins compared to those from plant sources. Animal proteins have all nine essential amino acids and are more bioavailable, while plant proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids.15
Experts recommend an additional 0.7 – 1 gram of dietary protein per gram of body weight for older adults to protect against sarcopenia.16
Prioritize Mental Health
This one might come as a surprise. After all, mental health is usually not something that comes to mind when we think about muscle mass and strength.
But researchers are finding increasing evidence of a link between mental health and muscle mass. In a 2020 publication, researchers analyzed 21 studies, totaling over 87,000 adults from 26 countries. They found that muscle strength had a positive effect on reducing depression symptoms. This suggests that improving muscle strength could be a strategy to promote mental health.17
For actionable tips on how to soothe tension in your body caused by stress, check out my article Ten Healthy Stress Hacks.
Optimize Your Health With a Women’s Health Specialist in Boston
As women, most of us tend to take care of the people around us first. We put so much energy into making others happy and healthy, often at the expense of our own health. And it can come at a major cost – physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Now it’s your time to shine. And maintaining muscle mass and strength is one of the best methods to keep your body and hormone levels healthy as you age.
You don’t need to go through this journey alone though. A women’s hormone specialist can play a crucial role in helping you maintain optimal health.
I consult with women nationwide, so I’m ready to help you wherever you are.