The over-emphasis on shedding body fat has obscured a critical component of good health: having enough muscle. The role of our muscles goes far beyond running for the bus, carrying the shopping and moving furniture. Muscles keep our bones strong (reducing the risk of osteoporosis), our immune system functioning (reducing the risk of infection) and our digestive tract working. More muscle means a faster metabolism, a lower risk of gaining abdominal fat and less chance of developing diabetes. And having more muscle increases survival rates in cancer and reduces its recurrence. This all translates into a longer, healthier, better quality life.
And the news gets better still: you don’t need to emulate Arnie or Rocky. It simply means we need to feed our muscles with nutrient-rich foods (not just protein but also fats and complex carbohydrates) and move our muscles on a regular basis. It’s a common myth that we lose muscle as we age. This only happens if we don’t exercise our muscles. Like brain cells, we need to use our muscles or we’ll lose them.
There are three types of muscle in the body, each with a distinct function.
- Skeletal muscle moves bones and other structures. We have more than 600 skeletal muscles, most of which are under our voluntary control. These are the muscles we need to exercise and maintain.
- Cardiac muscle enables the heart to pump blood around the body. Exercise that increases oxygen consumption keeps cardiac muscle strong.
- Smooth muscle is found in hollow organs that change their shape in order to perform their functions. Examples are the digestive tract, uterus, bladder, eyes and blood vessels. Cardiac and smooth muscle is not under our voluntary control – these muscles get on with their job without us having to think about them.
When we become ill or undergo severe physical stress such as burns or traumatic injury, our protein requirements increase dramatically. At these times we are not able to eat enough protein to keep up with our needs so the body obtains amino acids by breaking down proteins derived from skeletal muscle. Hence wound healing is better and faster if you have adequate muscle tissue.
So how do we preserve and build muscle (for health not for show)? People often fear bulking up if they lift heavy weights. You only have to look at the vast number of muscle-building supplements to realise that bulking up is hard to do. Some people are more genetically inclined to gain muscle than others but for most of us it would take a lot of dedicated effort. So relax and think about the most expedient and enjoyable way you could start to strengthen and preserve your precious muscles.
Obviously going the gym and enlisting the guidance of a trainer is a great option if time and money permit. I enjoy group exercise classes aimed at muscle strengthening such as Pump and boxing. It’s a smorgasbord out there so have fun trying them out. Some yoga classes are also good at helping you maintain muscle. If you don’t enjoy a gym environment you can do bodyweight training at home (or a hotel room when travelling) with minimal or no equipment. Pushups, dips, squats, lunges and chin ups on your clothes line are all good options. Maybe not the clothes line. It’s important to learn good technique to avoid injury and get the biggest bang for you buck. There’s an infinite number of online programs or you can simply google ‘muscle strengthening exercises’. Aim for two to three 20+ minute sessions per week.
There’s one more big bonus in building up your muscles. You simultaneously build up your brain. Research shows that weight training (also known as resistance training) improves memory and learning ability. So what are you weighting for?