The importance of muscle for health
This is a topic I am extremely passionate about.
Most people see building muscle as vain or egotistical. When we think of muscle building we often think of body builders or athletes but it’s important role in health for general population is hugely under-appreciated.
Building and using muscle is just as, if not more important than diet for your metabolic health yet we seem to focus so much of our attention on demonizing sugar and body fat.. which are another topic for another day… and not enough on the impact of muscle on health.
It’s common to focus on sugar consumption or body fat when talking about metabolic health / disease e.g. type 2 diabetes. A much less common consideration is the important role of muscle.
Let’s use diabetes as an example:
Post meal blood sugar control is one of the key problems faced by type 2 diabetics. Healthy individuals can quickly lower blood glucose levels after a meal but in uncontrolled diabetes glucose levels stay elevated.
Muscle is the biggest site of glucose disposal after eating. And highly sensitive muscle that is used frequently has an enhanced ability to take in glucose from the blood.
Type 2 diabetes is a disease that develops over time in various stages and one of the first things to occur is insulin resistance of muscle (and liver but we will focus on muscle here).
The presence of insulin or the act of stimulus of exercise results in the translocation of glucose transporters to the cell surface of the muscle cells to take in glucose from the blood. Resistance or insensitivity to the presence of insulin results in a reduced ability to clear blood glucose in diabetes.
An analogy I like to use for this is that insulin is like someone knocking on the door of the cell and in a healthy individual the glucose transporters hear the knocking and open the door to let glucose in. However, when an individual develops insulin resistance the glucose transporters become (at least partially) deaf and stop responding as well to the knocking meaning not as much glucose is let in.
We often attribute insulin resistance to increased body fat and under appreciate the role of muscle’s metabolic function.
Increased body fat alone does not cause insulin resistance. Obese people who are not insulin resistant do not have the same problems controlling their glucose levels. Some people term these individuals ‘healthy obese’ and is one of the many reasons you cannot judge someone’s healthy purely by their weight.
I am certainly not saying excess body fat does not play a role and there is a strong body of evidence showing that when overweight type 2 diabetics lose ~10% of their body weight they tend to put their diabetes into remission. The problem with this is we know it’s hard. It is often achieved in this population by VERY low-calorie diets e.g. the Newcastle diet which is 600-800 calories a day.
We also know that maintaining weight loss is hard AND that people who exercise tend to be better at maintaining their weight loss.
And we know that increased exercise & activity (even ‘just’ walking) reduces risk of type 2 diabetes independently of changes in body fat.
I don’t want to create another false dichotomy and say we shouldn’t focus on diet we should focus on exercise because we should focus on both… BUT at the moment I don’t think we focus enough on exercise.
Especially exercise that grows or at least maintains muscle.
Here is some proof to back it up:
This study found that muscular strength is inversely and independently associated with death from all causes and cancer in men, even after adjusting for cardiorespiratory fitness and other potential confounders.
Focusing on exercise is especially useful for people who have struggled with dieting before (basically anyone who’s struggled with their weight) to realise they are doing themselves the world of good if they are exercising even if they don’t lose weight.
We’ve all heard the sh*tty comments ‘what’s the point going to the gym.. you’ve not lost any weight’ or ‘why are you going you don’t need to lose weight’… As if the sole purpose of exercise is weight loss.
There are so many benefits to exercise beyond weight loss / how many calories you burn during.
Even if you have a load of excess fat you want to lose and you don’t lose any you are still drastically improving your health by exercising.
Not to mention mental health, social and mood benefits.
I hate that people think of exercise solely for fat loss. It’s incredible no matter what your size or goal.
Exercise doesn’t get enough credit for its impact on health. We tend to focus on being lean as the epitome of health when actually the research shows that people who are fit and obese don’t have the same health risks as those who are obese but not fit. Again, health is not a size or body fat %. It is multifactorial!
And further to that point… Fitness is a better predictor of Health and longevity than BMI or body fat is. The authors of this review conclude that: ‘Researchers, clinicians, and public health officials should focus on physical activity and fitness-based interventions rather than weight-loss driven approaches to reduce mortality risk.’
The above image shows an estimate of the number of deaths in a population that would have been avoided if a specific risk factor had been absent. As you can see low physical activity has a far bigger impact than obesity.
So if you’ve recently increased your activity and exercise but you’ve not lost weight don’t give up because you’re getting huge benefits even if you don’t see a change on the scales.
Why I am passionate about focusing on the power of exercise:
It is far more fun and empowering to focus on building muscle and the amazing things your body can do than it is to focus on weight loss.
Not only this but building muscle is empowering whereas dieting tends not to be (although certainly can be when it’s done right!).
The awesome thing about exercise is it makes you feel good and when you feel good and you feel like you improving your health guess what happens… you make healthier food choices.. not because you are being forced into dieting but because you want to. You start appreciating your body for the amazing things it can do rather than punishing it by over restricting food and trying to stick to an unenjoyable and unsustainable diet.
Type 2 diabetics get it hard as they are usually prescribed 2 of the hardest diets to stick to low carb or very low calorie.
Rather than that let’s focus on moving more, building muscle and making some good food choices… CHOICE not restriction (an important differentiation).
It is important that you enjoy the journey because to maintain results you’re going to have to maintain behaviours and you’re not going to stick to something that makes you miserable (nor do you need to get results)
If you want any help building muscle and or losing fat then click here.
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Thank you for your attention,
If you enjoyed this and want to listen to the podcast on muscle and health it is click here and here is one on exercise and ageing too!