Preserving Muscle During Weight Loss

10.12.14
Health & Wellness

In recent weeks, two different individuals who were making changes to their fitness regimen told me they planned to “lose weight now, and tone up when I get to my target weight.” In this column I would like to try and dissuade anyone from adopting that mindset. You see, for the general population, the objective of preserving lean muscle should be just as important as losing body fat. Weight loss only occurs when the individual is consuming fewer calories than are expended through metabolism and physical activity. The calories that are “burned” during this time may come from converted fat stores … but they may also come from broken down muscle tissue.

Losing body fat can certainly decrease our risk of negative health events, and can also improve our appearance and self-image. Losing muscle mass, however, decreases our resting metabolism, makes all daily activities more difficult, and has a negative effect on our appearance. So, by losing muscle mass while losing body fat, we are trading benefit for detriment. And a new lowered resting metabolism will make it more difficult to maintain the weight loss.

Losing body fat certainly isn’t easy, but it’s just as difficult to add lean muscle. It takes A LOT of intense work, attention to protein intake, and adequate recovery to add muscle mass. Most people simply don’t have the dedication. Let’s think about it. Wouldn’t you agree that we see more “thin” or “heavy” people than muscular people in the world? Based on that observation, can we assume that it isn’t easy to be muscular? Therefore, if lean muscle is so hard to come by, wouldn’t we want to keep every ounce that we already have? I can assure you, keeping it is much easier than building it!

Genetics certainly plays a role, but the most common factors determining how much muscle mass we carry include what kind of load we place on our muscles, and our protein intake. While some muscle workout takes place at our place of occupation, the voluntary physical activity we participate in is the larger factor. I have said it before in this column, but let me state it again: each of us MUST be participating regularly (two-three days per week) in strength training in order to maintain good health. This routine is all the more important if we have made the decision to lose body fat. An adequate program will include enough exercises (six-eight at least) to work the entire body and the same body part should not be worked two days in a row to allow for adequate recovery. Most importantly, the weight used in EACH exercise should be heavy enough that you cannot perform more than 15 repetitions. At least three sets of each of those exercises should be performed in a given workout.

The repetition range of each exercise is vital to stimulating muscle. We call it “overload”. If a muscle is not overloaded, if it is not exposed to a load that is uncommonly heavy, it has no reason to adapt to the stimulus. The body recognizes regular overloading as a signal that those muscles are important, and it will choose to NOT break down that tissue for the extra calories it is not getting from your diet.

Finally, in our quest to maintain lean tissue during times of low body fat, we must continue eating plenty of lean protein. If we supply the body with lean protein from skinless chicken and turkey, low-fat dairy products, baked or grilled fish and shellfish, etc., our bodies will be less likely to break down the proteins in our muscle tissue. So, if weight loss is your goal, strength training and lean protein will go a long way toward making sure the weight comes from the lumps and not the lean!

The JRMC Wellness Centers, located in Pine Bluff and White Hall, offer a variety of fitness options for all ages and interests. Free weights, machines, cardio equipment, personal trainers and a full schedule of Les Mills classes are available at both facilities. For more information call the Pine Bluff (541-7890) or White Hall (850-8000) facility.

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