The benefits of having a higher muscle mass
Got muscle? No, we don't mean Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson level of muscle, because that is frankly rather ridiculous. We're talking about enough muscle mass to trigger all kinds of health benefits. Because when it comes to painting the picture of perfect health, we all know body fat is the enemy. But what if we are close to our ideal body fat percentage (15% to 18% for men; 22% to 24% for women) but have little in the way of muscle? How close are we then to that picture of perfect health?
The fact is, muscle is absolutely vital to our overall health. Aside from the most obvious function of allowing us to move freely and perform everyday tasks, muscles play a pivotal role in boosting our metabolism and immune systems, as well as increasing bone strength and aiding weight loss. Muscle building has even been shown to improve mental health.
The best part about flexing those muscles? Well, there isn't really any downside as long as you approach it sensibly. While I could easily reel off many issues associated with too much body fat, I am at pains to think of a single problem that commonly arises as a result of responsibly taking on muscle mass.
So before we get into how to build muscle and the health benefits of doing so, let’s take a look at what muscle is as well as its function within the body.
Muscle mass: What it is and how much you need
There are three different types of muscle in the human body: Cardiac muscles, smooth muscles and skeletal muscles. Cardiac muscles, as the name suggests, are found only in the heart where they line the walls and work to pump blood throughout our bodies. They are completely involuntary in that we do not consciously control how and when they move.
Next we have smooth muscles, also involuntary, that line some of our most vital organs including the stomach, oesophagus and the bronchi of the lungs – as well as the walls of blood vessels. Their primary purpose is to rhythmically contract in order to control organ function such as moving food through the oesophagus or expanding the lungs when breathing.
Finally, we have skeletal muscles. And this is what we’re talking about when we refer to muscle mass. These attach directly to our skeletons and contract to facilitate movement. Sometimes known as voluntary muscles, we have direct control over them and they shape and grow as we develop muscle mass and tone.
So how much muscle is healthy? Well, that depends on several factors including age and sex.
For men aged 18-40, a normal body mass percentage would be in the region of 33.4 to 39.4%; between ages 41-60 we’re looking at roughly 33.2% to 39.2%; and for the over 60s, as muscle mass fades naturally with age, I would expect to see ranges of 33% to 38.7%.
These are considered healthy ranges. Providing you are in good health, there are no real disadvantages to increased muscle mass. However, if you are looking to gain a lot of muscle in a short space of time, it is always advisable to consult your physician or a personal trainer to make sure you are not placing undue strain on other areas of the body.
The benefits of muscle mass: From weight loss to immunity
Now that we know what we’re dealing with, let’s take a look at some of the key benefits to maintaining muscle mass.
Weight management. The science is simple: Bigger muscles require more energy and in turn burn more calories. Muscles are essentially the engine room of the fat and calorie burning machine so the bigger and stronger they are, the more efficiently can they do their job. Equally, the harder you work your muscles, the more energy they need to recover and the more calories that are burned.
Longer life. Though it might sound like hyperbole, it has some basis in fact. The more muscle, the longer you live. That’s at least according to a long-term study published in the American Journal of Medicine that found BMI (the measure of body fat) is not as good an indicator of longevity as muscle mass.
Increased insulin sensitivity. One of our muscles’ primary functions is storing glucose from the bloodstream as glycogen. These glycogen stores are then called upon for fuel every time we need to move a muscle. Therefore the more muscle mass we have, the better they are at grabbing glucose from the bloodstream. Maintaining these stores has been proven to increase insulin sensitivity, and protect against insulin resistance. A study published in the Public Library of Science ‘One’ journal found that low muscle mass may be an early predicator of diabetes – independent of body fat. In other words, it’s possible that regardless of your body fat percentage, the less muscle you have the more likely you are to develop diseases such as diabetes.
Decreased injury risk. This is pretty simple as well: The larger the muscles around our joints and bones, the less likely we are to injure them. This layer not only protects against breaks and dislocations but as our tendons and cartilage grow stronger with our muscles, we also become less susceptible to sprains and tears.
Improved mood. As well as a whole host of physical health benefits, there is also evidence to suggest muscle mass is good for our mental health. Scientists at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute recently ran a series of tests on mice and made some dramatic discoveries. What they found was that taking exercise causes changes in skeletal muscle and in turn that muscle removes from the blood a substance that accumulates during stress. In their tests, it was the mice with the characteristics of greater skeletal muscle who were less susceptible to depression. In fact, they were not susceptible at all.
Increased immunity. As muscle tissue is the only place that the body can store amino acids, muscle mass plays a huge role in strengthening our immune system. Amino acids (such as glutamine, arginine and cysteine) are pivotal to our ability to respond to pathogens and other toxic compounds in the body. So the smaller our muscles, the smaller our amino acid stores and the less able we are to fight off disease and infections. Maintaining a healthy muscle mass then provides your immune system with the vital chemicals it needs to keep you healthy and free from illness.
Gaining muscle mass: What you can do today
I am sure after reading this you are just bursting to get out there and tack on some muscle mass – to take advantage of the array of health benefits that it offers. But how?
Well, as with most things health-related, the first place to start is your diet. After all, if you want your muscles at the peak of their powers, then you need to supply them with the right fuel. For the most part, that means protein. Foods such as beef, chicken, oily fish, eggs and nuts are all great sources of protein, as well as plenty of other vital vitamins to keep your muscles pumping. Staying away from grains, processed foods and sugars also plays a big part when it comes to eating well.
Once your diet is in check, the next thing to do is nail your exercise regime. Before even lifting a weight, the first step is to set goals. Giving yourself a series of easily achievable landmarks will not only spur you on to continue but is also a great way to track your progress. As for the types of exercises you should include in your regime, this will depend somewhat on your current level of health and fitness, as well as your age, weight and other lifestyle factors. As a general rule of thumb, a workout consisting of high rep range (around 15 to 20 repetitions) coupled with short rest periods (around 30 to 40 seconds) will usually bring about best results.
Last but not least, one of the most important factors in aging men are those testosterone levels. As we get into our forties, testosterone levels fall off dramatically. And so it is nearly impossible to gain muscle mass without replacing testosterone to normal levels. This you can do though bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (never synthetic!), which is a very safe form of treatment that comes with essentially no side effects.
Gaining muscle mass doesn’t mean you must become a bodybuilder, but by simply being more conscious of your diet and making sure you exercise, you are opening up not just great physical benefits and protections, but emotional well-being as well.
The opinions in the column are by Dr Graham Simpson, the Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah, Dubai, and are not necessarily those held by Esquire or Hearst International.