Want to age strong? Follow these tips for the strength advantage.

This blog post is a collaboration with Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner., managed by NCBA, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff.

What does the word STRONG mean to you? Bulging muscles, nerves of steel, mental resolve?

We all want to be strong but how do we get there without living in the gym or developing the mindset of the Dali Lama?  It’s easier than you might think, so let’s make it a goal to get strong and stay strong by adopting some simple strategies to move more and eat well.

Strength matters now more than ever. The reasons to get and stay strong might be obvious but did you know that muscle mass isn’t the same as muscle strength or power? “Between the ages of 20 and 90, we can lose over 50% of our muscle mass,” says Dr. Bob Murray, exercise physiologist and co-author of Food & Fitness After 50. “70-year-olds are about 30% weaker than they were at age 50…a large drop in strength over just 20 years.” We need that muscle strength and power for functional fitness and everyday living as we age.

 Simply put, functional fitness is the ability to keep doing what you love to do. For some that might mean tending a vegetable garden, riding bikes with grandchildren, climbing stairs, or hiking a favorite trail. For me, it means lifting my own suitcase in the overhead bin or hauling a 50-pound bag of dog food. Functional fitness also means better balance, agility, and coordination which reduces the risk of falling and improves the odds of remaining independent.

Emerging research shows that physical strength can also improve your mental strength. “We are beginning to understand muscle and brain cross talk,” says Dr. Nick Burd, Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. “In our studies, we are finding that older adults who are physically strong have better reaction times and better performance on memory tests.” Physical activity and structured exercise, such as strength training, can improve well-being, improving our mood, emotions, and feeling of enjoyment.

What’s the recipe for success? The good news is two bouts of strength training each week, can slow or reverse the loss of muscle mass, strength, and power.

Step 1: Get off the couch and find what works for you. Going to a gym and using weight machines works for some, but for others it can be as simple as working out with hand weights, resistance bands, or even items you have around the house, like a gallon jug filled with water. My husband discovered TRX and works out twice a week to stay strong.


Start slowly if you haven’t been active (and always check with your health care provider before starting an exercise routine) and gradually increase the amount of weight lifted. Just like our brain needs a challenge to stay sharp, so do our muscles. We challenge our muscles through progressive resistance exercise, a fancy name for lifting a weight until your muscle says, “no more!” As you get stronger, you can challenge your muscle by lifting a heavier weight, that is the progressive part of strength training.
My favorite way to strength train at home is using resistance bands. They come in several color-coded bands for light, medium, and heavy resistance. I use them for a full body work out without leaving my house, and they are easy to pack in a suitcase for a travel workout.

For a helpful guide on exercise that comes complete with videos check out Go4Life from the National Institute on Aging.

Step 2: Revamp your plate. Muscle need feeding with the good stuff. Whether you follow a Mediterranean style eating plan or the DASH eating plan, a healthy dietary pattern is needed to get and keep you strong. Your diet provides three key energy (calorie) containing nutrients: carbohydrate, protein, and fat and all three are important for good health.


When it comes to muscle and mental strength, dietary protein is the star nutrient. Food sources of protein are preferred to protein powders or shakes because food gives you more than protein. Foods are healthy packages of important vitamins and mineral and key amino acids (the building blocks of body proteins) that are absent in a simple powder. Research suggests that older adults aim for 30 grams of protein at each meal.

Top reasons why I recommend beef:

  • Getting 30 grams of protein is easy with a sensible portion of lean meat (3.5 ounces to be exact). Add favorite grains, veggies, and fruit to round off the meal.
  • Weight management is top of mind for many older adults. Using sensible portions of lean meat provides needed protein without excess calories. A 3-ounce cooked serving provides only 8% of the daily value for calories (based on 2000 calorie diet) yet 48% of the daily value for protein.
  • Lean beef, like Top Sirloin, is rich in vitamin B12, B6, niacin, selenium and zinc, and it is also a good source of iron, phosphorus, riboflavin and choline. These nutrients are important in supporting immune function, building healthy blood cells, and supporting cells in the brain and nervous system.
  • Protein at every meal is satisfying, flavorful and helps keep hunger at bay.

Building a strong plate is easier than you think, especially when you include sensible portions of lean meat. Check out the following foods to see how much protein they contain per serving. A 3-ounce of cooked serving is about the size of a deck of cards.

FoodPortion SizeGrams of Protein
Beef, sirloin, broiled3 ounces26
Pork loin, roasted3 ounces23
Chicken breast, grilled3 ounces26
Salmon, sockeye, baked3 ounces23
Ground beef, 90% lean, broiled3 ounces22
Tuna, canned in water3 ounces20
Cottage cheese1/2 cup14
Greek yogurt, nonfat5 ounces13
Low-fat milk8 ounces8
Almond milk8 ounces1
Egg, large16
Peanut butter, creamy2 Tablespoons7
Lentils, cooked1/2 cup9
Almonds1 ounce6

Putting it all together: Here are three sample meals with 30-grams of protein for your breakfast, lunch, and dinner plate.

Breakfast:
1 scrambled egg with 1 ounce of cheese, a handful of spinach and 2 ounces of cooked ground beef wrapped up in a flour tortilla.

6 ounces of vanilla Greek yogurt with 1-ounce of hearty granola and 2 Tablespoons of chopped walnuts and a skim milk latte.

1 fried egg, 1 slice of sharp cheddar cheese, 2-ounce cooked beef sausage patty served on toasted English muffin.

Lunch:
3-ounces lean deli roast beef on rye bread with side of coleslaw.

A serving of classic beef and barley soup served with crusty whole grain bread.

Beef and Barley Soup

3 ounces of canned, drained tuna mixed with chopped dill pickles and banana peppers and mayonnaise on toasted bread.

Dinner:

Asian Beef Stir Fry with thinly sliced top sirloin with steamed white or brown rice.

Asian Beef Stir Fry

Beefy Sweet and Sloppy Joes on soft burger buns.

Beef Sweet and Sloppy Joes

Grilled salmon with rice pilaf and roasted asparagus.

How I put it all together: As I approach my 7th decade, staying strong is my top priority.  Lessons I’ve learned along the way include:

  • Strength training doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Strength training just twice a week is all that is needed.
  • While I may prefer strength training to aerobic or endurance exercise, both are important as we age. Add in some agility, balance, and coordination exercise, like yoga, Tai Chi, to stay functionally fit.
  • Eating is one of life’s great pleasures! Enjoy eating sensible portions of all your favorite foods, including lean beef.

Check out this link for great, tasty recipes.

  • I like to assemble meals. Some of my favorite are:
    • Lean grilled steak sliced over a big green salad, loaded with veggies, and topped with crumbled blue cheese and balsamic vinaigrette.
    • “Use-up-the veggies in the fridge” stir fry with thinly sliced round steak. Marinate the steak in teriyaki sauce and grated ginger and stir fry in hot oil and add chopped veggies. I usually have onion, carrot, broccoli, and bell pepper in the veggie drawer.
    • Enjoy a lean beef burger cooked on the grill until it reaches 160⁰ F on meat thermometer. Layer on grilled mushrooms, grilled onions and top with crunchy, leafy greens and fresh tomatoes.

For me, strong means eating foods I enjoy that nourish me and support physical and mental activity. How about you? For more helpful information on nutrition and strength, check out Strength the Field Manual available by clicking here.

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian and nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. She is the author of Food & Fitness After 50.

References

Alamilla, Rafael A.; McKenna, Colleen F.; Salvador, Amadeo F.; Scaroni, Susannah; Martinez, Isabel G.; Beals, Joseph W.; Paluska, Scott A. FACSM; Burd, Nicholas A. Higher Protein Intake does Not Potentiate Resistance Training-Induced Muscular Adaptations in Middle-aged Adults, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2019 June 51;(65):791 doi: 10.1249/01.mss.0000562862.73585.43

Askow AT, McKenna CF, Box AG, Khan NA, Petruzzello SJ, DeLisio M, Phillips SM, Burd NA. Of Sound Mind and Body: Exploring the Diet-Strength Interaction in Healthy Aging. Front Nutr. 2020 Aug 28;7:145. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2020.00145.

Granic A, Dismore L, Hurst C, Robinson SM, Sayer AA. Myoprotective Whole Foods, Muscle Health and Sarcopenia: A Systematic Review of Observational and Intervention Studies in Older Adults. Nutrients. 2020 Jul 28;12(8):2257. doi: 10.3390/nu12082257. PMID: 32731580; PMCID: PMC7469021.

Granic A, Sayer AA, Robinson SM. Dietary Patterns, Skeletal Muscle Health, and Sarcopenia in Older Adults. Nutrients. 2019 Mar 30;11(4):745. doi: 10.3390/nu11040745. PMID: 30935012; PMCID: PMC6521630.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central, 2019. fdc.nal.usda.gov.

Beef, sirloin (NDB#13455); Pork, loin (NDB#10069); Chicken breast (NDB#05747); Salmon, sockeye (NDB#15086); Ground beef, 90% lean (NDB#22563); Tuna, in water (NDB#15126); Cottage cheese (NDB#01016); Greek, yogurt, low fat (NDB#01287); 2% Reduced Fat milk (NDB#01079); Almond milk (NDB#14016); Egg, large (NDB#01132); Peanut butter, smooth (NDB#16167); Lentils, cooked (NDB#16070); Almonds (NDB#12563)