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Preventing Muscle Loss During High-Altitude Exertion

Mountain Climber

"Most people are fine with losing weight, but what most people don't realize is that when you lose weight, you are also losing muscle mass too," explains Stacie Wing-Gaia, PhD, RD, CSSD, whose research focuses on what happens in the body during high-altitude exertion. About 20 percent of the weight you lose will be muscle loss for a typical dieter. That's why it is important to exercise along with eating less to maintain muscle.

This is a greater concern for high-altitude athletes (above 14,000 feet); that percentage of muscle loss jumps to 66 percent. "For example if you lose 10 lbs of weight at sea level, 20 percent of that would be muscle. If you lose 10 Lbs at 15,000 feet elevation, 65 percent of that would be muscle," explains Wing-Gaia, whose research focuses on what happens to the body when it is being exerted in high altitudes. Specifically, she is honing in on protein production, which makes muscles. "What we know is that our ability to make protein slows down, while the breaking-down process increases. The result is you lose more muscle, faster."

Wing-Gaia, who is a nutritionist and teaches wilderness nutrition courses at the University of Utah, works with the National Outdoor Leadership School as well as others and has conducted her research at base camps on Mount Everest. She is also an avid outdoors person, both a climber and a backpacker, whose research has bolstered her own performance.

Her article in the recent issue of Wilderness Medicine Magazine provides insight and suggestions on how to reduce protein/muscle breakdown and tricks to consuming enough high-energy food, often and quickly (including some recipes).

Even if you don't regularly find yourself at 15,000 feet, the photos in this article will take you there and might prompt you to stir some peanut butter into your oatmeal next time you are headed out, up high.