From physical strength to organ function, muscles play a vital role in your health and fitness at every stage of life.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Imogen Watson
Trying (and failing) to get fit? If you’re worried about your body mass index (BMI) and counting calories but still not seeing the fitness results you crave, it can be disheartening.
But what if we told you to throw away the scales and focus on a different aspect of body composition? Imogen Watson, registered dietitian and Medical Nutrition Manager, Adult Nutrition for Abbott in the UK, explains why muscle mass is essential for making the most of your health.
Why muscle mass matters
Many of us list weight loss on our list of New Year’s resolutions. However, the new you doesn’t necessarily have to be a lighter you! People often don’t realise that weight loss isn’t always positive, as it could be a signal of muscle loss that’s critical to your overall health.
According to a review published recently in Annals of Medicine, muscle mass matters – it can impact a person’s strength, energy, mobility, and overall health. So, while seeing the number on the scale drop can be exciting, it’s important to make sure you’re not neglecting your muscles.
What is muscle mass?
Muscle is the health factor that’s rarely talked about. Your muscle health plays an increasingly important role in strength, energy and ability to live a healthier, more active life.
Muscle mass can impact a person’s strength, energy, mobility, and overall health.
Muscles are the largest component of your total lean body mass (or LBM), which is everything that makes up your body except for fat. In fact, your muscles usually account for 50 per cent to 60 per cent of your body weight.
Why is muscle mass important?
As we age, we naturally lose muscle – once we hit 40 we can lose approximately 8 per cent of muscle per decade and this can almost double after the age of 70.
Muscle loss can be accelerated by illness and can lead to an increased risk of falls and fractures, and delay recovery from illness. So it’s important to do what we can to protect and preserve our muscles.
Our muscles play a vital role in our health at all stages of life, from allowing movement and balance to contributing to physical strength, organ function, skin integrity, immunity and wound healing.
How do you improve muscle mass?
Adequate nutrition and maintaining a balanced diet are great ways to support your muscle health. But no single food provides all the nutrients needed for good health, so it’s important to eat a variety of foods.
Muscles play a vital role in health at all stages of life, from physical strength to wound healing.
Getting the right nutrition is especially important when you’re sick or recovering from a health event, such as surgery or pneumonia, as you may not be consuming the amount or types of foods in your diet that will help you recover. Just like you need oxygen to breathe, you need to nourish your muscles with protein and vitamin D to combat the breakdown as you recover.
Regular resistance exercise is an effective way to increase muscle mass and strength, alongside good nutrition.
How do you measure muscle mass?
Knowing how important muscle is for both health and recovery, practical ways to measure muscle mass and function are essential. There are sophisticated techniques to measure muscle function in clinical practice such as grip strength.
For most of us, asking a few simple questions will give us a good indication:
- Do I struggle to stand from a chair or carry objects?
- Do I feel tired and/or weak?
- Do I feel wobbly?
- Have I fallen recently?
- Am I walking more slowly than I used to?
The importance of diet and muscle health
There is truth in the adage ‘you are what you eat’. Enough protein, the building block of muscle, is essential for healthy muscles. Good sources of protein include meat, fish, eggs, nuts and beans. Aim to include a high protein food in at least two meals a day.
Eating enough protein, the building block of muscle, is essential for healthy muscles.
Making sure our body has enough vitamin D is also critical for healthy muscles. People with low vitamin D levels can experience muscle weakness and low levels of vitamin D, particularly in the winter months, are not uncommon. Opt for oily fish such a salmon and mackerel, eggs and fortified breakfast cereals to boost your intake.
What about your BMI?
It’s important that we don’t just look at weight and weight loss, particularly for people living with chronic conditions. We also need to think about their muscles. Malnutrition is also muscle loss.
Historically, body mass index (BMI) has been used to help assess a person’s nutritional status, but it does not give an accurate picture of muscle health. Knowing how important muscle is for both health and recovery, practical ways to assess muscle mass and function are essential.
Tips for getting strong and staying healthy
Watson recommends the following to make the most of your health:
- Cardio is not always king
Make sure you’re not just focused on burning calories with cardio. Activities that include resistance like Pilates and weight training are critical for muscle building.
- Sweat it out at home
No worries if the gym crowd and CrossFit rage aren’t for you. Invest in at-home workout equipment like dumbbells or stretch bands and build muscle right in your living room. Simple exercises with weights can make a big difference.
- Prioritise protein
Protein is a key component in building and maintaining muscle mass, and many adults still don’t get enough. It’s OK to mix in a few treats in moderation, but make sure to include good sources of protein at every meal like lean meats, eggs, dairy and beans.
- Supplementary benefits
If you’re unwell and cannot get enough nutrition through diet alone, multi-nutrient oral nutritional supplements are available, including those high in protein and vitamin D.