Your Muscles and Bones at 50+
What to expect for your strength, balance and even your skull
The good news in your 50s: Your muscular endurance is still robust.
The reality check in your 50s: Your weight will probably peak.
Here are a few changes to watch out for.
- It’s time to embrace the power of protein. On average, people lose about 30 percent of their muscle power between ages 50 and 70. But this doesn’t have to be; inactivity and too little protein hasten the process. Keep muscles healthy with regular strength training — a smart step that 79 percent of people in their 50s skip. And try eating more protein at breakfast and lunch. Most people over 50 get the majority of their protein at dinner. Bumping up your intake a little and spreading it throughout the day — oatmeal with almond butter at breakfast, a tuna sandwich at lunch — could help preserve muscle mass and strength, research suggests. Muscle matters: By making it a priority, you’ll cut your risk for diabetes, heart disease and frailty, and preserve your independence in the decades to come.
- Exercise if you want to lose weight. In a recent Wake Forest University study of 249 older overweight adults, those who cut 300 calories per day lost 12 pounds, two of which were muscle. But those who cut the 300 calories and also did strength training lost nearly 20 pounds in the same time frame, and more of it came from pure fat.
- But still cut those calories. The average 50-year-old consumes 285 more calories a day than our grandparents did at this age. If willpower isn’t enough to prompt your weight loss, try acceptance-based therapy. Skipping ice cream and being sure to exercise really aren’t fun, but they’re essential for reaching goals that matter the most to you. This attitude shift helped dieters drop 36 percent more weight, and keep it off longer, in a recent study of 190 overweight men and women, average age 51.
- Another incentive to exercise: You’ll preserve bone density. Thanks to declining estrogen at menopause, women’s bones thin fastest between ages 50 and 60 — losing as much as 15 percent of the dense outer layers that guard against fractures and more than 30 percent of the honeycomb-like inner layer. About half of all women over 50 will break a bone someday because of this. Men also begin losing bone density, as the body’s never-ending cycle of microscopic bone breakdown and reconstruction shifts gears. Prevention? Get your daily calcium quota (preferably from food; one major new analysis has found that supplements don’t prevent fractures).
- Your skull is shifting. The bones of the skull change as we age. Eye sockets get bigger, jaws become more pronounced, and facial bones thin. These changes happen to both sexes but generally affect women slightly earlier than men. Don’t worry; it’s not a problem.
- You’re a little shorter. Thanks to the flattening of the 23 spongy disks in the spine (along with age-related muscle loss), the average woman in her 50s is a half-inch shorter than the average woman in her 40s; men’s vertical loss is about one-tenth of an inch by age 50. By age 80, you may lose 2½ to 3 inches of height — enough to require re-hemming your pants. Plus, this will raise your risk for back pain. To stand taller, protect your bones by performing weight-bearing exercises, getting enough rest and eating plenty of dairy, fish and dark, leafy greens.
- You’re wider, too. For women, waistlines grow about one inch from age 40 to 50; men may add a half-inch.
- You need new shoes. Feet flatten out and get bigger during adulthood, especially in our 50s. As muscles and connective tissues weaken, the 26 bones in your tootsies start to shift. And weight gain adds to the issue; your shoe size may grow as much as a full size between your early 50s and mid-60s.
- You’re not as spry a dancer. Muscles take longer to respond to brain signals starting in your 50s, and you begin to lose the muscle fibers that are responsible for making you move swiftly. Health tip: If you’re bedridden with a bad cold or back pain, try to get up and move a little. For every day you spend confined to bed, you can lose around 1 percent of your muscle strength.
- Your endurance is solid, and your injury risk is low. Despite some inevitable muscle loss, you can still plan on celebrating your 60th by running a 10K. Yes, it’s safe; in fact, a University of Texas study showed that there was no age-associated increase in injury risk for older athletes.
- You run the same distance and eat the same amount of food you always did but still gain fat. What gives? Your body needs fewer calories as you hit your 50s. A moderately active man who ate 2,600 calories a day in his early 40s needs about 200 fewer calories daily; a moderately active woman should reduce calories from 2,000 to about 1,800. Skip the bacon with your morning eggs, or cut one beer from your happy hour.