Whether you’re lacking equipment or motivation, chances are that current events have slowed down your exercise routine. And, as you might expect, working out less can cause you to lose both muscle mass and strength—which isn’t ideal for your metabolism, bone density, mobility, and overall health, especially as you get older.
“As we age, resistance training, in particular, is more helpful for preserving bone density and muscle mass, since the regular stress reminds the body it is important to prioritize keeping these structures strong,” says Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN.
That said, there are a few ways you can combat muscle loss when you’re training less. These eight helpful tips will limit your muscle loss and keep your body strong despite a shift in routine.
1. Consume Protein
Your most important move for preventing muscle loss is consuming enough protein, says Jones.
Next comes spreading that intake throughout the day’s meals and snacks. “If trying to maintain muscle while training less, I tell my athletes and active clients to keep protein intake around 1.8 to 2.5 grams per kilogram of body weight per day,” Jones says. (That equals 0.8 to 1.1 grams per pound of body weight.) For a 150-pound person, regardless of gender, this comes out to between 82 and 135 grams of protein per day.
“I also advise them to eat four to five times per day—and to split their total protein intake into similar amounts each time they eat, as this is shown to maximize muscle repair and growth,” she adds.
Lean beef, poultry, and other meats, as well as fish (like salmon) are the best sources of protein. However, tofu and soy, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and even higher-protein grains and veggies (like quinoa and broccoli) provide a boost.
If you’re not getting enough protein via food alone, add a complete protein supplement (that contains all nine essential amino acids) into your routine. “While whey is popular, blended plant proteins are also a great option,” Jones says.
2. Amp Up Leucine
Leucine is an essential amino acid shown to trigger muscle protein repair after exercise, Jones says. Getting enough of this amino can help ward off muscle loss.
Animal sources tend to offer more leucine, with dairy (specifically whey protein), tuna, and chicken breast standing out as some of the top options, says Jones. That said, plant proteins such as tofu and pea protein isolate are also rich in leucine.
When you do work out, make sure your post-workout recovery meal or snack contains two or three grams of leucine. “This can be achieved by two-thirds a cup of tofu, three to four ounces of tuna, salmon, or chicken, or two cups of milk,” Jones says. “In supplement form, this could be one serving of whey or pea protein isolate.”
3. Get Healthy Fats, Too
Eating enough healthy fats, like omega-3 fatty acids (which are found in nuts like walnuts and fish like salmon), can also support muscular health and function, says Jones.
“Whether you’re training heavily or working out less, maximize protein and healthy fat intake,” she says.
Salmon, whether fresh or canned, is an excellent option, as is tuna. “However, it’s best to choose skipjack or chunk light tuna, rather than albacore, yellowfin, or ahi, since those are higher in mercury,” Jones warns.
Stick with low-mercury options and you’re safe to load up on omega-containing seafood every day. If you want more personalized seafood recommendations based on your weight, age, sex, and health, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Consumer Guide to Seafood.
4. Move Every Day
Even though you’re not formally working out as much right now, you should still move your body daily.
“It sounds obvious, but when you don’t move your muscles regularly, you’re likely to experience muscle atrophy,” says trainer Caleb Backe, C.P.T., wellness expert for Maple Holistics. “This can be mild or severe, but even the mildest cases are a form of muscle loss and weakness.”
With this in mind, ensure that you move daily—whether it’s taking a walk, cleaning the house, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. “This is supported by recent health guidelines that suggest as little as 10 minutes of daily movement can be beneficial for overall health,” Backe says.
5. Increase Your Vitamin D
Although vitamin D is most commonly associated with optimizing mood and immunity, it can also help to slow muscle loss, says Jones. Skeletal muscles contain vitamin D receptors and athletes who are deficient may experience muscle weakness and losses in strength and power.
“Athletes are often recommended to have higher vitamin D levels than the general population,” explains Jones.
Those who regularly eat fatty fish, vitamin D-fortified milk, eggs, and UV-treated mushrooms are more likely to have adequate vitamin D levels, Jones says. However, supplementing with 5,000 IU of vitamin D can help boost low levels, which can then be maintained with daily supplementation of 1,000 to 2,000 IU per day.
If you’re concerned about your vitamin D levels, speak to your doctor about how to incorporate D-containing foods and supplements.
6. Increase Your Magnesium
Magnesium not only boosts energy levels, but can also prevent muscle cramps and ensure your muscles stay healthy, too.
“Research has shown that magnesium supplementation may support strength in elderly populations,” Jones says. “But I mostly recommend magnesium supplements to athletes who feel they aren’t recovering well despite adequate intake of total calories, carbs, and protein,” she explains.
What’s more, research has shown that magnesium supplements may reduce oxidative damage from exercise. Work on eating magnesium-rich foods such as spinach, nuts, beans, and whole grains regularly—and speak with your doctor or a dietitian about supplementing.
7. Try High-Intensity Movements
When hour-long workouts are just not in the cards, short bursts of high-intensity training will give you the most bang for your buck, says Backe. With HIIT, you spend less time working out but put in an all-out effort to maximize calorie burn while building strength and toning up your muscles.
One way to up the intensity of your usual workout: Incorporate more explosive, plyometric moves. Think squat jumps instead of squats and split jumps instead of lunges, Backe says.
8. Eat Enough Calories
Though you’re working out less these days, don’t start slashing calories. This will just lead to greater muscle loss, Jones says.
“In order to maintain muscle mass, strength, and function, it’s important to eat enough energy each day,” Jones says. “It’s not a good time to cut calories or carbs, as research shows that an energy deficit will target muscles, not just fat.”
Aim for balanced meals and snacks that are high in fiber and contain a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats to help you feel satisfied—and limit the mindless snacking between meals. “Then you can be more confident eating when you’re hungry and stopping when full,” Jones explains. And that will help you maintain that hard-earned muscle.
Diggin’ What’s Good? For more essential health facts, tips, and inspiration, join our Facebook community, Eating Healthy, today!