Every year more people pursue fitness at older ages. In fact, the average gym goer, triathlete, and marathon participant is now over the age of 40. What’s important to know, though, is that as we get older, our body goes through a number of changes that affect our athletic performance and ability to recover from exercise.
Healthy weight maintenance and a well-balanced diet are beneficial at any age. However, they alone often aren’t enough to ensure sustained athletic performance for active people over 40.
Luckily, there are many ways aging athletes can meet their changing nutritional needs—and continue to train harder and smarter. Here are two nutritional priorities all fitness enthusiasts over 40 should start with.
1. Optimize Protein Intake
For any athlete, adequate protein intake is essential for promoting muscle growth and recovery after exercise. The importance of protein continues to increase as we age for two reasons:
- As early as our 40s, a natural, slow decrease in muscle mass—known as sarcopenia—begins.
- As we get older, our body becomes less efficient at both absorbing and synthesizing proteins needed in muscles.
The result: Older athletes need more protein to build and maintain healthy muscle mass and recover after exercise.
How Much Protein Do Older Athletes Need?
Recommendations about how much protein individuals need to consume vary. I recommend using the following formula for muscle maintenance: Divide your body weight (in pounds) by two and aim to eat that number of grams of protein each day. (For example: If you weigh 160 pounds, you’ll shoot for at least 80 grams of protein per day.)
If you’re looking to build muscle, though, many experts suggest increasing your protein intake by up to double this ‘maintenance’ recommendation.
Great sources of lean proteins to focus on include:
- fish and seafood
Leucine intake is particularly advantageous as we get older because it directly affects some of the changes in muscle metabolism that occur with aging. In particular, leucine enhances the body’s ability to build protein, help support muscles during and after exercise, and ultimately helps prevent muscle wasting.
If maintaining this level of protein intake is difficult for you, you can supplement your diet with a protein powder, which will provide high amounts of proteins and their building blocks to optimize protein metabolism. (I recommend Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard Fit 40 Protein Powder.)
When Should Older Athletes Consume Protein?
Generally, you should break down your protein intake evenly throughout the entire day. However, there are a few times in particular when high protein intake benefits athletic performance.
First, start off with a protein-rich breakfast. Morning meals high in protein have been shown to decrease hunger throughout the day and promote healthy weight.
Beyond that, I also recommend consuming 15 to 25 grams of protein immediately after high-intensity workouts. Doing so has been shown to support strength gains, maximize muscle mass, and promote quick recovery.
2. Maintain Healthy Joints
Another key nutritional consideration for older athletes: maintaining healthy joints. Each joint in the body contains an intricate array of cartilage, tendons, and ligaments, all of which are essential for normal joint function during exercise.
The key building block of all of these structures is collagen, a structural protein that our body naturally produces.
As with all proteins, though, our body produces less collagen as we age. This can lead to stiffer tendons and ligaments, as well as damage to the cartilage covering the bones in each joint. These changes increase athletes’ susceptibility to ligament- or tendon-related athletic injuries. They also contribute to the development and progression of arthritis.
While these natural changes are, in many ways, unavoidable as we age, proper nutrition can play an essential role in reducing their impact on performance in active people over 40.
For many older athletes, inflammation produced by wear-and-tear to the cartilage of the joints causes much of the pain we associate with arthritis.
Luckily, a number of nutrients can support a healthy immune response in the body—and promote healthy joints—including:
- omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish, seeds, and soy
- certain spices, such as turmeric and ginger
- antioxidants, which are found in berries and leafy greens
Consume collagen by making bone broth or taking a supplement, and incorporate these other helpful nutrients into your diet or supplement routine regularly.
Dr. Brian J. Cole, M.D., M.B.A., is an orthopedic surgeon and Managing Partner at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush in Chicago, Illinois. He is passionate about sports medicine research and is a renowned world leader in the field of cartilage restoration.