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The Muscle Loss and Weight Gain Connection

The Muscle Loss and Weight Gain Connection

Table of Contents

By Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., and Rita La Rosa Loud, B.S.

Muscle loss and weight gain are connected because muscle loss results in resting metabolic rate reduction of 2 to 4 percent per decade

Muscle loss and weight gain are connected because muscle loss results in resting metabolic rate reduction of 2 to 4 percent per decade. Based on body mass index (BMI), more than 70% of American adults are classified as overweight or obese.6 Unfortunately, this height and weight calculation seriously underestimates the number of middle-aged and older adults who have too much fat and too little muscle.  This is due to the fact that men and women who do not perform regular resistance exercise experience muscle loss and weight gain of between 5 and 10 pounds each decade of life.7,16

Consequently, a non-strength training individual who weighs the same at age 60 as at age 20 has at least 20 pounds less muscle and 20 pounds more fat, even though the BMI number is exactly the same.  So, muscle loss results in resting metabolic rate reduction of 2 to 4 percent per decade.5,10,14,17 Because resting metabolism is responsible for more than 60 percent of daily energy expenditure in inactive adults,9  metabolic loss due to muscle loss and weight gain are intertwined.21,26

Infographic of muscle loss and weight gain experienced with aging.

Research clearly demonstrates that almost all successful dieters regain the weight they lost within a relatively short period of time

The most prevalent approach to fat weight gain is a low-calorie diet plan.  According to the American Medical Association,20  70 percent of American adults are eating reduced calorie diets in order to attain a more desirable body weight.

Although dieting is a productive means for temporarily reducing body weight, it is essentially ineffective for maintaining the lower body weight.4,15 Research clearly demonstrates that almost all successful dieters regain the weight they lost within a relatively short period of time. 4,15

This undesirable outcome is largely due to the muscle loss and weight gain and metabolic rate reduction that occurs during periods of calorie restriction.11 In fact, research reveals that approximately 25 percent of the weight lost through dieting is muscle tissue.1,8,19,23 Dieting, therefore, exacerbates the major factors responsible for fat gain in the first place, namely muscle loss and weight gain due to metabolic rate reduction.

With this in mind, it makes sense to couple a sensible diet plan, (effective for losing fat),4,15 with a reasonable program of resistance exercise (effective for increasing muscle and metabolism).3,12,18 Although it might seem logical to combine dieting with aerobic activity, research indicates that this actually increases muscle loss and weight gain.2,22

Although it might seem logical to combine dieting with aerobic activity, research indicates that this actually increases muscle loss and weight gain

A 2017 weight loss study by Beavers et al.2 compared the body composition effects of diet alone, diet with aerobic activity, and diet with resistance exercise over a 6-month intervention period.  

  • The diet only group lost 11.2 pounds of fat weight and 2.4 pounds of lean (muscle) weight. 
  • The diet with aerobic activity group lost 14.1 pounds of fat weight and 3.3 pounds of lean weight. 
  • The diet with resistance exercise group experienced the most fat weight loss (-17.2 pounds) and the least lean weight loss and weight gain (-1.5 pounds).

Another 2017 muscle loss and weight gain study found that the body composition changes attained by dieting with aerobic activity could be improved upon by adding resistance exercise.22  After 6 months, the diet with aerobic activity group lost 13.9 pounds of fat weight and 5.9 pounds of lean (muscle) weight, whereas the diet with aerobic activity and resistance exercise group lost 15.4 pounds of fat weight and 3.7 pounds of lean weight. 

Of course, any muscle loss and weight gain is undesirable, as this negatively impacts health, fitness, function, metabolism, and appearance.

A 6-month weight loss study to concurrently decrease fat weight along with muscle loss and weight gain

In an attempt to concurrently decrease fat weight along with muscle loss and weight gain, we recently conducted a 6-month weight loss study.25   To avoid excessive caloric deficit, our research participants followed a moderate diet plan in which the men consumed 1,500 – 1,800 daily calories and the women consumed 1,200 – 1,500 daily calories. 

To avoid detrimental protein reduction, our study subjects consumed 2 daily meal replacement protein shakes (each providing about 24 grams protein and 36 grams carbohydrate).  To avoid excessive energy utilization, our research participants performed a 40-minute workout (20 minutes of aerobic activity interspersed with 20 minutes of resistance exercise), 2-3 days per week.

Protein shake to increase protein and avoid muscle loss and weight gain.

 

This basic and practical intervention program resulted in 14.1 pounds less fat weight and 3.7 pounds more lean weight.  Our subjects actually improved their body composition by 17.8 pounds, with concurrent fat loss and muscle gain instead of muscle loss and weight gain.  This unusual but desirable study outcome reverses the muscle loss and weight gain associated with aging, thereby enhancing health and fitness, as well as reducing the risk of weight regain. 

It would appear that a weight loss program consisting of moderate caloric restriction, increased protein intake, and combined aerobic/resistance exercise is effective for reversing muscle loss and weight gain.  Additionally, our program participants attained significant reductions in waist girth, hip girth, resting blood pressure, and blood sugar (HbA1c).25

Reversing the muscle loss and weight gain associated with aging are only as good as the sustainability after discontinuation of a diet and exercise plan

These impressive 6-month results are only as good as their sustainability after discontinuation of the diet plan.  With relatively rare exceptions, almost all successful weight loss programs are followed by a return to pre-diet body weight after resuming normal caloric consumption.4,15  So, the reversal of muscle loss and weight gain is lost without continued strength training. 

Therefore, we conducted a follow-up weight maintenance study in which our prior weight loss study participants eliminated caloric restriction, switched from 2 daily meal replacement protein shakes to 1 daily meal replacement protein shake, and continued the same basic exercise program (40 minutes, 2-3 days per week).24   After 9 months without caloric restriction, our weight maintenance program participants had the same body weight and a significantly better body composition. 

Although they did not regain any body weight, they continued to reduce fat and rebuild muscle throughout the 9-month post-diet period.  This is one of very few weight maintenance studies to actually avoid weight regain, and the only weight maintenance study to attain continued body composition improvement with concurrent fat loss due to less muscle loss and weight gain.

Summary of the muscle loss and weight gain connection

A major reason for the epidemic of overweight and obesity is aging-associated muscle loss and metabolic rate reduction, which typically leads to fat accumulation.7,14,21,26 Diet only programs and diet plus aerobic activity programs result in both fat loss and muscle loss, thereby exacerbating the underlying problem and making it most difficult to avoid muscle loss and weight regain. 1,2,8,22

Performing resistance exercise during dieting is effective for reducing muscle loss and weight gain.2,22 However, performing resistance exercise and increasing protein intake during dieting is a more desirable intervention, as this approach enables weight loss with concurrent fat loss and muscle gain.13,25

Strength training for older adult to avoid muscle loss and weight gain.

Key factors for addressing muscle loss and weight gain for successful weight loss and body composition improvement appear to be:

  • Reduced but reasonable caloric consumption, such as 1,200 – 1,500 calories/day for women, and 1,500 – 1,800 calories/day for men).
  • Increased protein intake, such as 2 daily meal replacement protein shakes.
  • Basic and brief exercise program, such as 2-3 weekly workouts featuring 20 minutes of aerobic activity and 20 minutes of strength training.

Key factors for successful weight maintenance and continued body composition improvement appear to be:

  • Increased protein intake, such as 1 daily meal replacement protein shake.
  • Basic and brief exercise program, such as 2-3 weekly workouts featuring 20 minutes of aerobic activity and 20 minutes of strength training.

Our results support a simple, sensible, and practical approach to attaining and maintaining a healthy body weight and body composition.   Additionally, unlike most weight loss and weight maintenance programs that have a relatively low completion percentage, our program of moderate food intake, satisfying meal replacement shakes, and manageable exercise frequency/duration elicited a high level of participant compliance. 

The subject completion rate in our 6-month weight loss study was 83 percent,25   and the subject completion rate in our 9-month weight maintenance study was 82 percent.24     

Note.  With respect to the nutrition program, participants who did not like to drink protein shakes were allowed to substitute protein bars with similar amounts of protein (20 grams) and carbohydrate (32 grams).  Also, to ensure appropriate intake of vitamins and minerals, participants took a daily vitamin/mineral complex that included 500 mg of calcium and 1,200 IU of vitamin D.  {All of the nutritional products were provided by Shaklee Corporation located in Pleasanton, California.)

Create a niche for yourself 

You can make a difference in the lives of older adults by implementing a good senior fitness training program for your older adult clients. This article taught you some of the reasons why a good training program to mitigate muscle loss and weight gain is important and what should be included. But, you need to have an adequate knowledge base to create a niche for yourself in senior fitness training as a senior fitness specialist.

The American Academy of Health and Fitness is here to help you with this all-important training you will need to be a safe and effective trainer of older adults. We offer a varied selection of in-depth, advanced continuing education courses.

You will find training in areas such as senior health and fitnessfitness assessmentsenior strength trainingback stabilityfitness nutrition for special dietary needslifestyle wellness coaching and cancer exercise. The home study continuing education course SrFit Mature Fitness is definitely one not to miss if you want to work as a senior fitness specialist! Certainly, everything you need to learn from experts like Wayne Westcott and create your niche in senior fitness training!

References

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  2. Beavers K, Ambrosius W, Rejeski W, et al. Effect of exercise type during intentional weight loss on body composition in older adults with obesity. Obesity. 2017; 25:1823-1829.
  3. Campbell WW, Crim MC, Young VR, Evans WJ. Increased energy requirements and changes in body composition with resistance training in older adults. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 1994; 60(2):167-175.
  4. Dombrowski SU, Knittle K, Avenell A, Araujo-Soares V, Sniehotta FF. Long term maintenance of weight loss with non-surgical interventions in obese adults:  systematic review and meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials.  BMJ.  2014;348:1-12.
  5. Evans W. Protein nutrition and resistance exercise. Can. J. Clin. Nutr. 2001; 26(6): S141-S152.
  6. Flegal KM, Carroll MD, Ogden CL, et al. Prevalence and trends in obesity among US adults, 1999-2008. JAMA. 2010; 303(3):235-241.
  7. Frontera WR, Hughes VA, Fiatarone MA, et al. Aging of skeletal muscle: A 12-yr longitudinal study. J. Appl. Physiol. 2000; 88:1321-1326.
  8. Garrow JS, Summerbell CD. Meta-analysis: effect of exercise, with or without dieting, on the body composition of overweight subjects. Eur. J. Clin. Nutr. 1995; 49:1-10.
  9. Heden T, Lox C, Rose R, et al. One-set resistance training elevates energy expenditure for 72 hours similar to three sets.  Eur. J. Appl. Physiol. 2011; 111:477-484.
  10. Heilbronn LK, de Jonge L, Frisard MI, et al. Effect of 6-month calorie restriction on biomarkers of longevity, metabolic adaptation, and oxidative stress in overweight individuals:  a randomized controlled trial.  JAMA.
  11. Hunter GR, Fisher G, Neumeier WH, et. al. Exercise training and energy expenditure following weight loss. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 2015; 47(9): 1950-1957.
  12. Hunter GR, Wetzstein CJ, Fields DA, et al. Resistance training increases total energy expenditure and free-living physical activity in older adults. J. Appl. Physiol. 2000; 89(3):977-984.
  13. Josse A, Atkinson S, Tarnopolski M, Phillips S. Increased consumption of dairy foods and protein during diet- and exercise-induced weight loss promotes fat mass loss and lean mass gain in overweight and obese premenopausal women. J. Nutr. 2011; 141:1626-1634.
  14. Keys A, Taylor HL, Grande F. Basal metabolism and age of adult man. Metabolism. 1973; 22:579-587.
  15. Mann T, Tomiyama J, Westling E, et al. Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments – diets are not the answer.  Am Psych. 2007; 62(3):220-233.
  16. Nelson ME, Fiatarone M, Morganti C., et al. Effects of high-intensity strength training on multiple risk factors for osteoporotic fractures. JAMA. 1994; 272: 1909-1914.
  17. Phillips SM. Resistance exercise: Good for more than just Grandma and Grandpa’s muscles. Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab. 2007; 32:1198-1205.
  18. Pratley R, Nicklas B, Rubin M, et al. Strength training increases resting metabolic rate and norepinephrine levels in healthy 50- to 65-year-old men. J. Appl. Physiol. 1994; 76(1):133-137.
  19. Ross R, Dagnone D, Jones P, et al. Reduction in obesity and related comorbid conditions after diet-induced weight loss or exercise-induced weight loss in men: A randomized, controlled trail.  Ann. Intern. Med. 2000; 133:92-103.
  20. Serdula MK, Mokdad AH, Williamson DF, et al. Prevalence of attempting weight loss and strategies for controlling weight.  JAMA. 1999; 282(14):1353-1358.
  21. Strasser B, Schobersberger W. Evidence of resistance training as a treatment therapy in obesity. J. Obesity. 2011; doi:1155/2011/482564.
  22. Villareal DT, Aguirre L, Gurney AB, Waters DL, Sinacore DR, Colombo E, Armamento-Villareal R, Qualls C. Aerobic or resistance exercise, or both, in dieting obese older adults.  N. Engl. J. Med.  2017; 376:1943-1955.
  23. Weiss E, Jordan R, Frese E, et al. Effects of weight loss on lean mass, strength, bone, and aerobic capacity. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 2017; 49:206-217.
  24. Westcott WL, Colligan A, Lannutti K, La Rosa Loud R, Vallier S. Effects of resistance exercise and protein on body composition following weight loss. J. Clin. Exerc. Phsyiol. 2018; 7(2): 1-8.
  25. Westcott WL, Colligan A, Puhala K, Lannutti K, La Rosa Loud R, Vallier S. Exercise and nutrition effects on body composition and blood measures in overweight adults.  J. Exerc. Physiol.  2017; 20(1):200-20.
  26. Wolfe RR. The unappreciated role of muscle in health and disease. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2006; 84:475-482.

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