Losing tone and fitness in your 50s? Now’s the time to hit those weights

Most of us by now have heard about the benefits of pumping iron combined with a healthier protein-fuelled diet.

But here’s some motivating news for those of us struggling to get reacquainted with those dumbbells gathering dust in the spare room or garage.

Now, in our middle years, is the best time to get some pretty spectacular results with weights, according to a new study by researchers from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, and a host of other institutions.

Using databases of published research, they looked for experiments that had lasted at least six weeks, included a control group and carefully tracked participants’ protein intake as well as the eventual impacts on their muscle size and strength, reports The New York Times.

They wound up with 49 high-quality past experiments that had studied a total of 1,863 people, including men and women, young and more mature, and experienced weight trainers as well as novices. The protein sources also varied, as did the amounts and the times of day when people had downed them.

With the aim of finally settling the age-old debate over the question of whether taking in more protein during weight training led to larger increases in muscle size and strength, the researchers added all of the results together.

The answer was a resounding yes, especially in those subjects 40 and up.

The researchers were quick to qualify their findings by adding that the impacts of this extra protein were not significant. Nearly everyone who lifted weights became stronger in these studies, whether they ate more protein or not.

But those who did ramp up their protein gained an extra 10 percent or so in strength and about 25 percent in muscle mass compared to the control groups.

The researchers say the ideal protein turned out to be about 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. In practical terms, that would amount to about 130 grams of protein a day for a 79kg man. (A chicken breast has about 45 grams of protein.)

Beyond that point, more protein did not result in more muscle benefits.

That number is considerably higher, however, than the protein levels called for in the current federal recommendations, which suggest about 56 grams of protein a day for men and 46 grams a day for women.

“We think that, for the purposes of maximizing muscular strength and mass with resistance training, most people need more protein” than is advised in the recommendations, says Rob Morton, a doctoral student at McMaster who led the study.

That advice holds especially true for middle-aged and older weight trainers, he says, almost none of whom were getting the ideal amount of protein in these studies and who, presumably in consequence, tended to show much smaller gains in strength and muscle size than younger people.

Mr Morton also said it didn’t seem to matter when you had the protein – before your workout with weights, or hours later – or did it matter what type you were having; solid, liquid, soy, beef, vegan or any other.

The only questions left unanswered, he concluded, was whether adding more protein affects body weight or metabolism and if so, what that means for health.

“We obviously need more studies,” Mr. Morton says.