Everyone knows that exercise is good for you. Less known is the fact that getting strong is key to a long life. In fact a new review of 140 studies shows that muscle mass is one of the greatest predictors of health and longevity. Researchers believe muscle should be considered a vital sign just like blood pressure, pulse, and body weight. It may be just as important as health factors that are tracked with blood tests such as cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose levels.
Why is muscle so important?
Muscle correlates with strength, which is a powerful predictor of longevity, especially in older men and women. One study found that elderly adults with the greatest lower body strength had the lowest risk of mortality and vice versa. The weakest subjects were most likely to die over the 6-year study period.
Muscle protects you during disease. A study of women with breast cancer showed that those with more muscle had a nearly 60 percent better chance of survival.
Muscle has an anti-inflammatory effect, counteracting the harmful reactive oxygen species associated with obesity, heart diseases, and diabetes.
Muscle improves survival with lung and bone diseases, improving long-term outcome and quality of life in people with COPD and osteopenia.
Patients with more muscle mass have shorter hospital stays and fewer surgical complications.
Muscle improves quality of life in young and old. Not only will you be able to move better, but muscle improves self-confidence and allows you to feel better about your body.
Muscle protects the brain, improving cognition and preventing brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s.
What is especially interesting about these new findings is that muscle is protective independent from fitness. Sure, being fit and strong is your best bet, but simply having more muscle conveys substantial positive effects.
What can you do to maximize your muscle?
1. Do a strength training program that targets the entire body. You can either do total body training several times a week, or split your workouts into upper and lower body training, doing each one twice a week.
2. Keep workouts brief but intense, limiting training time to one hour including warm-up and cool-down.
3. Choose big bang for your buck exercises, such as those that use multiple joints, like squats, step-ups, lunges, bench press, pull-downs (or pull-ups), and rows.
4. Train to near failure, using weights that are heavy enough so that you can’t do any more by the time you reach your target final rep.
5. Use a higher training volume, opting for 10 to 15 reps per set and 3 to 5 sets per exercise.
6. Do higher intensity forms of cardio, such as intervals or strongman exercises. Some people like sled, sandbag, or bootcamp training, but even several 20-second intervals on a bike will give you better muscle building results than long-slow cardio workouts.
7. Focus on recovery. Stretching, massage, deep breathing, foam rolling, and good nutrition will help ease the stress of training and get you back in the gym for a higher quality workout faster.
8. Get your protein in. High-quality protein foods such as eggs, fish, poultry, and dairy supply the amino acids that stimulate protein synthesis and build muscle. Get a minimum of 1.2 g/kg of bodyweight a day.
9. Eat a high-quality diet. Instead of relying on ultra-processed foods, opt for healthier options that will promote recovery from training and improve your overall quality of life.
10. Avoid yo-yo dieting. When you lose fat, you also lose muscle. People who yo-yo diet, regain the fat but never get the muscle back, making them weaker than before they started. Instead of obsessing about fat loss and cutting calories, focus on training for muscle and strength. Combining workouts with top-quality nutrition will allow you to lose body fat while holding on to your precious muscle.
Prado, C., et al. Implications of low muscle mass across the continuum of care: a narrative review. Annals of Medicine. 2018. 50(8):675-693.