Maintaining muscle mass during the pandemic and beyond

The  lockdown measures during the Covid-19 pandemic may have meant a more sedentary lifestyle for some of us and so it is  a particularly important time to support the health of your muscles and bones.  It is not just the current situation that may contribute to a loss in muscle mass – from the age of around 40- 50,  sarcopenia - a natural decrease in skeletal muscle - occurs in all of us.  But its not all doom and gloom!  – with regular exercise and a good diet, you can preserve muscle mass.

Joe Wicks or Mr Motivator ?  A regular yoga or Pilates session ? - whatever floats your boat, many of you will be exercising at home,  but equally, don’t forget the importance of eating well to obtain the necessary nourishment to keep fighting fit.

Muscles need nourishment

Protein

Exercise and a good diet go hand in hand – one without the other will not be enough to preserve muscle.  Protein is the major structural component of all the cells in the body and is especially important for muscle. Chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, dairy products, tofu, quinoa, buckwheat, nuts, seeds, pulses and tempeh are all high in protein.  Make sure that you include one palm size of protein at each meal and include protein sources such as nuts and seeds or nut spread on oatcakes if you need a between-meal snack.

Calcium – we all know about the importance of calcium for healthy bones, but did you realise that calcium is also vital for muscle health?  Calcium facilitates the contraction of the muscles, whilst magnesium helps muscles to relax.

Whilst calcium is essential for bone and muscle health - don’t put all the focus on dairy products.  They may not provide the best-absorbed form of calcium and may not be well-tolerated by some people. Other good sources of calcium include fish, eggs, almonds, seeds – particularly sesame seeds, chickpeas, whole-grains such as brown rice, millet and quinoa and green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and kale.  Eating tinned fish, including sardines and salmon with their bones, not only bumps up your calcium intake but also provides important omega 3 essential fatty acids.   

Magnesium

Magnesium helps to metabolise calcium and vitamin C as well as helping in the conversion of vitamin D to its active form.  Studies show that adequate magnesium concentrations are necessary for maintaining optimal muscle performance and exercise tolerance and that magnesium supplementation may increase muscle strength. If you are lacking in magnesium, your muscles may contract too much, leading to spasms and cramping. Good food sources include green vegetables such as spinach as well as nuts, sunflower and sesame seeds, legumes and whole grains.  On the other hand, a diet high in processed foods and low in whole grains and green vegetables is often deficient in magnesium.  It is also worth pointing out that magnesium has been reported to be depleted in the soil, so even a more balanced diet containing a good range of grains and veggies, may provide far less magnesium than it did 50 years ago. 

Vitamin D - we’ve been hearing a lot about vitamin D lately as Public Health England (PHE) advises us to supplement 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily.  Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body which are both needed for healthy bones, teeth and muscles. 

Observational studies have also positively linked Vitamin D levels with muscle strength and postural stability. Not only that, this vital vitamin is also needed to keep our immune systems healthy, with low levels associated with frequent infections.   Our major source of vitamin D is through the action of sunlight on the skin, but spending more time indoors means that sun exposure is currently reduced.  As well as lack of sun, our skin colour, age, geographical location and even being overweight or obese are all factors that may affect vitamin D status.  In fact, the amount of vitamin D needed will vary from person to person and some studies have suggested that much higher levels than 400iu a day are needed to ensure optimal levels of vitamin D for good health. As a general guideline, we would suggest taking 500-1000iu daily, but more may be needed in some people. The daily dose should not exceed the tolerable upper intake level (UL) of 4000 IU per day for adults.

Zinc

One of zinc’s many functions in the body is helping to turn protein into muscle and regulating muscle-building hormones. Zinc also has an even more direct positive impact on your bones as it increases new bone formation by enhancing the proliferation of osteoblasts, the cells that create new bone.  You can ensure that your diet provides adequate zinc by eating grains such as oats and quinoa as well as nuts and seeds – notably cashews and pumpkin seeds.  Other great sources of zinc include lean beef, lamb, shellfish and legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and beans.

B vitamins

Vitamins B6 and B12 both play direct roles in protein metabolism, allowing your body to use the protein in your diet to build new muscle.  Not only that, they are needed for the production of immune cells and red blood cells which aid muscle growth and repair.  Additionally,  studies have linked vitamin B12 deficiency with  low bone density and increased fracture risk, particularly fractures of the hip.  Foods high in vitamin B6 include fish, chicken, tofu, pork, beef, sweet potatoes, bananas, potatoes, avocados, and pistachios.  Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products, including fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products, but does not occur in plant foods.  Anyone on a plant-based diet will need to obtain this vital vitamin from foods fortified with B12  such as certain plant milks, soy products and breakfast cereals or choose to supplement.

and don’t forget vitamin C!

Vitamin C’s role in boosting immunity is common knowledge but it also functions  as an antioxidant that protects muscle cells from damaging free radicals.  Additionally, it is needed for the production of collagen, which is essential for joint health.  Good joint health is in turn is critical for a safe and productive workout.  There is also research to suggest that vitamin C supplementation before a workout may reduce delayed muscle soreness.(7)  Great food sources of vitamin C include broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kiwi, oranges, papaya, red, green or yellow pepper, sweet potato, strawberries, and tomatoes..

and a final word about exercise……………….

Exercise is needed to build muscle mass and in turn, muscle mass is necessary to trigger bone growth through weight-bearing exercise.  The good news is that it is never too late to increase physical activity – just don’t do too much too soon!

Weight-bearing exercise forces you to work against gravity and includes walking, jogging, climbing stairs and dancing – all of which can be done under lockdown!  Walking is one of the easiest ways to keep fit at the moment.  This might be walking in the park, around the garden or your home and even just walking up and down the stairs.   Resistance exercises – such as lifting weights or using an exercise band are also important to build up muscle and bone strength.  Your daily routine can also include some simple squats and forward and backward lunges.

And finally, if you have been exercising and your muscles are feeling a little stiff or sore, you may find it useful to supplement some extra magnesium or use the traditional herb, Devil’s Claw for joint and muscle pain relief!

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