Strong is the new skinny. But building muscle mass is about much more than looking great in a swimsuit. Muscles help us move, lift and carry, and the research also shows that they also appear to play a vital role in keeping us healthy. Having an increased muscle mass can protect us against disease, fight obesity, maintain bone strength and increase our resilience to stress and illness as we get older.
The problem is that it’s all too easy to let modern conveniences take the strain, so that our muscles don’t have to. Taking the escalator, pulling a trolley or lounging in front of a screen can leave our muscles shrunken and our bodies weak. Sarcopenia or having too little muscle can mean we’re ‘skinny fat’, or thin on the outside and flabby on the inside. Being slim simply isn’t enough to protect us from osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity and the impact of stress. Still not reaching for the dumb-bells? Then read on.(1)
Muscle Mass and Diabetes
The muscles store the carbohydrates from our diets as glycogen. This is our energy reserve to fuel activity and bodily functions. This means that muscle is essential for maintaining energy levels, keeping us moving and allowing our bodies to use and store glucose.
Resistance to the effects of insulin is one of the biggest problems in world health. It is believed to be a key cause of diabetes, high blood fat levels and high blood pressure. Research has shown that sarcopenic obesity (high fat and low muscle mass), to a greater extent than just obesity alone is associated with insulin resistance, demonstrating the vital part muscle mass plays in preventing metabolic diseases. Put simply, the more muscle you have the less likely you may be to develop type 2 diabetes.(2)
Our muscles are the body’s main reservoir for amino acids, the building blocks of protein. These are essential for growth, immunity, energy and the efficient function of our bodies. If our diets are inadequate, or we’re unwell or being starved then the body relies on this ready supply to enable it to make the proteins that are essential for life.(3)
Muscle Mass and Obesity
Our bodies burn energy night and day, just to fuel essential body processes and to keep us alive. The higher the rate at which we burn this energy, the more calories we use up and the less likely we are to gain weight.
So, how can we speed up this process, boost our metabolism and stay slim? You guessed it, we need to gain muscle. This process of protein synthesis and breakdown in the muscles is the single biggest part of the body’s resting energy expenditure or REE. The more muscle, the higher the REE and the greater the metabolic rate. So, the good news is being well-muscled will make you use up more energy, even when you’re sleeping! (4)
Muscle Mass and Stress-busting
When our bodies are stressed by cancer, severe injury or infection the body has a huge need for amino acids. It triggers a mechanism to break down the muscle protein to address this demand and provide plenty of the crucial building blocks. This process is tricky to reverse, even with an excellent diet and nutritional supplements. It’s the reason why you may see people who are critically ill seem to waste away before your eyes.
People with lower muscle mass may be less likely to survive severe burns, trauma or cancer. Muscle can also have an impact on your recovery. A severe illness or accident can leave you frail and weak. It can be tough to recover and if you’re short of muscle before, the extra loss can make it unlikely that you will ever regain full function and mobility. Think of weight training and building muscle as your insurance policy against future health problems.(4)
Muscle Mass and Heart Disease
Researchers from UCLA looked at the link between the body’s musculature and the most important muscle of all, the heart. They investigated patients admitted with cardiovascular disease and found that patients with a bigger muscle mass had a lower mortality risk. These findings seemed to be independent of the level of fat. It seems that simply having muscles can reduce the risk of heart attack death.
If we want to prolong life, it’s just as important to focus on maintaining muscle mass as encouraging weight loss.(5)
Muscle Mass and Osteoporosis
Illness, age, poor diets and the menopause can all lead to our bones becoming weaker and more brittle. Broken bones can be painful and frustrating but osteoporosis is more than just an inconvenience. Fractures can decrease mobility, increase the risk of blood clots and infections and even lead to premature death. So, it’s vital to prevent it in any way we can.
Having more muscle can protect against thinning bones. It’s all down to the work your bones do. They grow stronger by bearing a heavy load-and that includes your body! Walking, lifting and weight training can all build your bones and protect against falls and fractures.
Don’t wait until you’re collecting your pension. It’s better to start building muscle mass and bone density when you’re young. It gives you a great foundation to work from and gets you into good habits early.(6)
Muscle Mass and Ageing
We don’t have to shrivel away as we get older. The evidence suggests that good nutrition and fitness can prevent weakness, immobility and decline as we age. Building our muscle mass can help us age actively, even outrageously if we so desire! (7)
“The importance of muscle size and strength for longevity and health in humans puts a new spin on the Darwinian statement “Survival of the Fittest” as it is clear that the strongest, fittest individuals are more likely to live longer and healthier lives”(8)
With more muscle we can prevent falls, protect against illness and live dynamic, fulfilling lives. The problem is that as we age, building muscle gets harder and if we don’t use them, we lose them. The trick is to build muscle mass now, and maintain it by continuing to live an active lifestyle and eating plenty of dietary protein.
If you thought being ripped was all about vanity, then think again. Building muscle can help you feel good, look good and live longer. So get down and give me twenty!
- Sarcopenia Exacerbates Obesity-Associated Insulin Resistance and Dysglycemia: Findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III (PLoS One. 2010 May 26; 5(5)) Preethi Srikanthan, Andrea L. Hevener and Arun S. Karlamangla
- The underappreciated role of muscle in health and disease (American Journal for Clinical Nutrition 2006) Robert R Wolfe
- Peak bone mass and osteoporosis prevention (Osteoporosis International), January 1993, Volume 3, Supplement 1, pp 56–60) J. A. Eisman, P. J. Kelly, N. A. Morrison, N. A. Pocock, R. Yeoman, J. Birmingham, P. N. Sambrook
- Low Relative Skeletal Muscle Mass (Sarcopenia) in Older Persons Is Associated with Functional Impairment and Physical Disability (Journal of the American Geriatrics Society Volume 50, Issue 5, May 2002. Pages 889–896) Ian Janssen PhD, Steven B. Heymsfield MD, Robert Ross PhD
- Live strong and prosper: the importance of skeletal muscle strength for healthy ageing (Biogerontology, June 2016, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 497–510) Michael McLeod, Leigh Breen, D. Lee Hamilton, Andrew Philp