Ask any financial advisor worth their salt about when you should start saving for retirement and you’ll likely get the same response: as soon as you can, as much as you can.
Why? Because the sooner you start saving, the better your chances are of living a comfortable lifestyle in your old age. The sooner you start, the greater the chances you’ll have a healthy savings account that you can draw off later in life, which can allow you to do all the things you want in retirement.
The same applies to your health, your muscles, and your body composition.
If you’re in your 20s or 30s, it’s easy to completely disregard your fitness if you want to, just as it’s easy to forget about saving money for retirement. You look and feel healthy with little to no effort.
Time, it seems, is on your side.
But, as anyone reading this who is in their 40s or beyond will tell you: the time you’re living on is borrowed. Although you’ve been told to take the stairs instead of the elevator for your health, if you’re not careful, one day taking the stairs might change from something you should do to something you wish you could do without needing to stop for a breather halfway through.
You might feel invincible today, but time will catch up with you, and sooner than you think.
Here’s What’s Going To Happen
You may not realize it, but your muscles are constantly being broken down and repaired. When you use your muscles, microscopic tears are caused from daily wear and tear. This necessitates rebuilding those tears with new muscle protein.
Here’s the problem: as you get older, your body stops rebuilding your muscles as efficiently as it used to. Over time, this leads to a reduction in overall muscle mass.
Now the kicker: this reduction in muscle mass doesn’t just occur in the elderly – unless you consider 30 being old. That’s right. Research has shown that muscle strength and development peaks in the 20s and begins to plateau in the 4th decade of life (better known as your 30s).
For many people, falling strength (whether consciously or not) translates to being less active, as doing some of the things they were able to do before easily have become more difficult. Less activity means less calories burned, less muscle development, and over time, negative changes in body composition – reflected in a loss of muscle and an increase in percent body fat.
If left unchecked, at some point in your 30s, your body will start to progressively lose muscle year after year, and by the time you’re 50 you could have lost around 10% of your muscle area. Thereafter, you can lose an additional 15% of the remainder by the time you’re 60 and another 15% of that by 70.
This is all true, and, furthermore, it will happen to you. No one can escape the slow march of time forever.
Here’s What Could Happen (& why you should care)
Muscle is an incredibly important tissue that is a crucial part of your body’s health. Having a well-developed body with enough muscle mass isn’t just for looking good – it’s for promoting a healthy body and living a full life for as long as possible.
A helpful way to understand this is to think of body’s muscles as your body’s internal “savings.” As you work out and your body converts the protein from your food into muscle protein, you create muscle “deposits,” similar to depositing money in a savings account.
Just as bigger bank account can help you do the things you want to do in life financially, bigger muscles help you do the things you want to do physically. And just like when hard financial times come – like when you lose a job unexpectedly – a healthy savings account can help you keep your head above water, when your body has a crisis – like becoming seriously ill or injured – your body draws on your muscles for protein reserves. The bigger the reserves, the easier it is to recover from a crisis, physical or financial.
If you’re feeling healthy and don’t currently exercise, you can likely thank your youth and your muscles for it. However, this free pass at health won’t last forever. If you’re still young, you need to preserve your advantage for as long as you can so when you start to lose muscle due to aging, you don’t become frail and weak.
Here are some reasons why you should be thinking about protecting your muscles, even if you’re young and healthy.
MOVING BECOMES HARD
Right now, you’re probably taking your mobility for granted. You can run, walk up a flight of stairs; ,throw a ball, and maybe even ride a bike. All of these things seem easy now.
But when you start losing muscle, these simple actions can become difficult. All of the sudden, taking the elevator becomes a necessity, not a luxury. You get tired more easily. Even getting in and out of a car can become a challenge. These are all possible experiences you may have as a result of losing muscle, as loss of function and independence is a pretty common consequence of muscle loss as you age.
GAINING FAT BECOMES EASY
Remember how your muscles were like your body’s engine and put a large demand on your body for calories to power them? Well, the reality is that your muscles are linked with your metabolism, so as your muscles start to diminish, so does your metabolism.
When this happens, many people describe it as their “metabolism slowing down.” That’s only partially true; the majority of what’s actually happening is your muscle is disappearing, which means your body needs fewer calories to operate.
If your body needs fewer calories but you continue to eat the same number of calories as you did before, you’ll start gaining body fat. What’s more: this entire process can occur with no drastic changes to your weight.
As the muscle starts to disappear and be replaced by fat (two separate processes, mind you), your body weight can remain largely unchanged – masking significant changes in body composition and potentially leading to a wide array of health problems associated with obesity.
HEALTH PROBLEMS BEGIN TO APPEAR
Human beings tend to gain weight throughout middle age due to a combination of many different factors, including becoming less active. Increased body fat has been linked with many different health problems.
One of the most frequently cited health risks is diabetes. Studies have shown that steady weight gain throughout life can lead to adult onset diabetes. This is due in part not only to having more body fat, but also the loss of muscle. Loss of skeletal muscle mass has been linked with insulin sensitivity: the less muscle you have, the greater your resistance to insulin – and resistance to insulin is the hallmark of diabetes.
On the flip side, the loss of muscle can cause other problems as you age. A particularly damaging condition, especially for women, is the onset of osteoporosis. A number of studies in both men and women have linked decreased muscle mass with thinner, weaker bones, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and broken bones from falls.
Get a Leg Up On Muscle Loss
From your 30s onward, you should be concerning yourself with maintaining your muscle mass for as long as you can. Just like saving for retirement, the sooner you start, the easier it will be to achieve the results you want in the future. Unlike your IRA or your stock portfolio, your muscles are insurance for your body’s health, not simply financial health.
Fortunately, although your body may eventually start losing muscle mass because of your advancing age, your body doesn’t lose its ability to gain it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 23 or 84; resistance training (weight lifting or other exercises that challenges muscle) has a positive effect on building muscle.
Some of the best exercises you can do to preserve muscle in all parts of your body that are both effective and time-efficient are the Olympic-style lifts: deadlifts, squats, bench press, and overhead press. These exercises, while initially challenging, are great for people short on time because they target many muscle groups at once, and if performed correctly, can lead to the development of muscle across your whole body.
Even better news: people who are just getting started with these types of exercises can experience rapid muscle gains in a relatively short time. For instance, a group of women who began exercising by performing squats in a controlled study experienced more than a pound of muscle gain in 4 weeks by squatting as few times as twice a week. That’s just 8 sessions.
Squatting in particular is a good exercise to invest in because it targets the largest muscle group in your body – your legs – which make up around 40% of your overall skeletal muscle mass. Increasing your muscle mass in your legs is a great way to help reduce your risk of a lower metabolism, which can help fend off unwanted fat gain.
Make an Investment In Yourself
It’s really easy to think of yourself as healthy and invincible when you’re young, but make no mistake: age will catch up with you, just as it catches up with everyone.
Remember: your muscles will start to plateau in strength sometime in your 30s, potentially leading to you becoming less active. It’s likely you won’t notice a thing early on unless you’re already keeping fit and/or tracking your weight and body composition.
Being aware of your body fat percentage and tracking it over time is a good way to determine your risk of losing muscle. If you’ve noticed that your weight hasn’t changed much over the last couple years but your body fat percentage has increased, that’s a red flag indicating muscle loss is occurring.
Take care of your muscles, young one, and they will take care of you!