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It doesn’t matter when – whey protein supplementation is beneficial to resistance training in aging women

Recent research has finally offered a definitive answer on whether the timing of whey protein supplementation matters with regard to muscle gains from resistance training in aging women. The good news is – it doesn’t, so supplementation can be added around training whenever it is convenient.

Physical deterioration and loss of stability affects independence
The deterioration of muscle mass is a huge problem for older adults. Helping the elderly reduce muscle mass loss (sarcopenia) and attenuate a decline in strength (dynapenia) can help lessen the number of falls they have and have a huge impact on the retention of personal independence. While whey protein has been widely regarded as a valuable resource for sports nutrition, the specifics regarding the optimal time to supplement around training have, until now, been a bit unclear.

While we already know that resistance training and the increase in nutritional protein intake can help maintain functional capacity and muscle retention, we would like to determine how best to maximize the potential effects of adding protein to the regimen of aging adults.

Aging effects women in a slightly different way than men. While the aging process for everyone is characterized by changes in body composition, for women, the loss of muscle mass and overall body fat paired with the shift of remaining fat to the abdomen and to the inside of muscles (due to the loss of estrogen) creates a specific concern. While the overall percentage of muscle mass loss is usually greater in aging men, because women generally start with less muscle mass than men, the loss of muscle is more critical for women. 

Whey could be the way to muscle mass retention
Whey protein is considered a great source of protein and has, on average, about four times more protein than the same serving portions of semi-skimmed milk or a cooked egg. Additionally, whey has been identified as a superior protein in terms of ease of digestion and the availability and uptake speed of amino acids. Because of these qualities, whey protein isolate and whey protein hydrolase are common ingredients in sports nutrition supplements.

To date, the jury has been out on whether pre- or post-training whey protein supplementation is more effective for building and maintaining muscle mass in aging adults who are doing resistance training. Only three studies have even looked at the effect of the timing of protein intake in older people, and there has not yet been a study done that controlled for or monitored all of the factors that may influence muscle mass retention. These include such factors as level of fitness training, daily nutritional intake and timing of supplementation. 

Does timing effect efficacy?
Recently, after our laboratory completed a study that definitively demonstrated improved skeletal muscle mass (SMM) and muscle strength by adding whey protein supplementation post-resistance training, we felt it was necessary to directly ask the question: does it matter when supplementation with whey protein is done? To answer this question, we undertook a study that examined whether is it more efficacious to supplement with whey protein pre-training or post-training in aging women (for our purposes, over age 60) who have already been pre-conditioned to resistance training.

Previous studies examining the effect of supplement timing on resistance training results have so far neglected to control for initial SMM gains and muscular strength increases that are effected by neurological factors around initiating new exercise regimens. These muscle adaptations are often so large in untrained participants that they can actually mask gains due to whey protein supplementation, thereby making it look like whey protein does not have a significant effect on SMM or muscle strength when compared to placebo groups. In the studies that we have designed, we asked participants to undergo an eight-week pre-conditioning program in order to distinguish gains in SMM and muscle strength unique to the whey protein supplementation from neural adaptations in the muscle that are known to occur in the first few weeks of resistance training. We also carefully recorded the nutritional intake of participants throughout the study so that we knew what the protein intake of our participants was on a daily basis without supplementation.

What we found in our results was that it doesn’t seem to matter when supplementation takes place. When compared with a placebo group of aging women, both those who took whey protein supplements prior to resistance training and those who supplemented after training demonstrated a significant increase in SMM, muscle strength, and functional capacity (as measured by walking speed and the rate at which a participant could rise from a seated position).

Going forward
It is of course important for aging women to add exercises to their daily lives that will build SMM and muscle strength. However, what our study suggests, is that supplementation with whey protein does assist in significantly increasing the gains from exercise. Additionally, because gains are seen in both pre- and post-training supplementations, the elderly should be encouraged to take whey protein supplements whenever it is convenient and agreeable to them.

Moving forward, we feel that research should investigate whether or not there is a dosage level of protein supplementation in the elderly that is optimum for the maintenance and increase of SMM and muscle strength. If we can determine this, then, an even stronger statement as to the “ideal recommendation” for protein supplementation could be made. Also, it is very possible that supplementation with whey protein every day, as opposed to just on days when resistance training is done, may encourage even more muscle gains. This is also a relevant research question going forward.


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