By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
Your muscle is your largest endocrine organ, and many researchers suggest that we should be measuring muscle mass, rather than fat mass or BMI (body mass index) as a marker of health. The reason for this is that having more muscle mass is associated reduced disease risk, less chance of diabetes, better bone density, and especially longevity.
The Science of Muscle:
Here are a few facts about muscle, and how it impacts your health in so many ways.
- Muscle promotes insulin sensitivity: The less muscle you have, the more likely you are to develop insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and ultimately diabetes. Losing muscle mass with age (called sarcopenia) is strongly associated with obesity.
- Skeletal muscle is directly associated with bone density in women over 50: The best way to maintain, and even build bone density is with strength training, especially with heavy weights – studies show that this applies at any age.
- Muscle improves disease recovery by creating a ‘safety net.’ When you have higher muscle mass, you have a buffer of protein your body can draw on during times of increased need. For example, your muscle mass is a predictor of survival rates with all types of cancer.
- Muscle protects your balance and prevents falls: This is more important as you age, but something to think about as you consider your long-term exercise program. In one study, adults with lower bone density corresponding to the lowest amount of skeletal muscle mass had the highest incidence of falls and worse balance.
- Higher muscle mass is associated with longevity: Muscle mass has been shown to be more accurate than BMI (body mass index) in predicting all-cause mortality in older adults, and this is independent of fat mass. What this means is that your muscle tone is more important for longevity than your body fat or weight. If you want to live longer, it’s essential to stay strong.
Muscle mass decreases with age:
For women especially, muscle mass decreases with age beginning in your 30’s. What this means is that if you don’t use it, you really do lose it. There is a more dramatic decline after menopause, as hormones play a role in your muscle maintenance too. This doesn’t mean that you should give up on yourself though – it just requires more consistent effort to build and maintain muscle.
Signs your muscle mass is decreasing:
- General weakness
- Slower walking speed
- Overall reduced strength
- Unintentional weight loss
So how to we maintain or build muscle?
—> The answer is quite simple: Nutrition & Exercise
Building muscle requires strength training on a regular basis, and many women miss out on this type of exercise. This can be traditional weight lifting, but also includes body-weight exercises like lunges, pushups and planks. Resistance training quite literally increases muscle protein synthesis. You ideally want to aim for strength-training exercise for at least 30 minute 2x per week, covering upper body, lower body and core. This is in addition to your daily activity or other cardiovascular exercise, which is also essential for healthy bones, better mood, and reduced disease risk.
So many women I work with are not eating nearly enough protein to maintain their muscle mass, let alone build it. The bare minimum amount of required protein is 1gram/kg of (ideal) body weight, but I would argue that this often falls too short. To put your body in a state of building muscle or protein synthesis, you may need to reach more than 100 grams of protein per day, which is approximately 20-25% of your daily calories.
In practical terms, this means including at least 30 grams of protein, 3 times per day which stimulates protein synthesis, muscle growth and a healthier balance of muscle to fat in the body. If you’re reducing calories for weight loss, be very careful that you maintain your daily protein requirements (aiming for 100 grams of protein per day), and do not restrict calories too low. Extreme dieting causes a starvation response that leads to significant muscle wasting – it’s very counterproductive for your metabolism and long-term health.
These numbers are generalizations, and not precise recommendations for your individual health – I have chosen average requirements to illustrate how many of us are getting far too little protein in our diets for overall wellness. I do however believe in personalized nutrition, so your daily requirements may differ depending on your current health and goals.
Signs you may not be getting enough protein in your diet:
- Cravings for sugar and carbohydrates – the never-full feeling.
- Low energy
- Muscle and joint pain
- Slow recovery from injuries
- Hair thinning, peeling nails and ridges on your nails
- Fluid retention in your feet or ankles
Measuring and tracking your muscle mass:
There are quite accessible and accurate ways to measure your muscle mass and body composition. A DEXA-scan, for example will give you an in-depth analysis of your muscle mass, body fat distribution, and also bone density. Many gyms also have sophisticated bio-impedance scales that quite accurately measure body composition including lean body mass. Unfortunately the hand-held devices and bathroom scales that measure percent body fat are usually much less accurate. Checking in with your lean body mass, and muscle mass periodically as you age is an very useful tool to evaluate overall wellness.
If you’ve recognized a need to take a closer look at your muscle mass, and protein requirements, and need support with your exercise and nutrition plan, please ask during your next appointment. We can find resources to first assess your current state, and set goals with nutrition and exercise to make a significant change in your current health and future longevity. This is a simple concept to understand, but one that is so often missed in women’s health.
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