Yes, strong muscles may lead to longer years!
Reviewed by Dietitian Maria Laura Haddad-Garcia
Popeye may have gulped down cans of spinach to grow his muscles, but for us, it takes more than greens. We have over 600 muscles within our body; some work on their own, like those found in our heart and organs, while others we can control, like our skeletal muscles. We use them each day, they help us walk, stand, lift, talk and even eat.
Unfortunately, as we age, our muscles lose their size, strength and function, which can make tasks like rising from bed or walking to the bathroom a challenge. Having weak muscles also increases our risk for falls, fractures, chronic conditions and a shorter life. That’s why it’s so important that we do everything we can to maintain our muscle mass. Below, we will explore the benefits of maintaining muscle mass and unveil three science-backed ways to keep muscles strong and healthy.
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Benefits of Your Muscle Mass
Helps Increase Your Metabolism
Building more muscle can fire up our metabolism and help us maintain a healthy weight. As Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES, a Washington D.C.-based dietitian, explains, “Because it’s one of our most metabolically active tissues in the body, it’s so important for healthy aging and longevity because it helps keep our metabolism functioning optimally as we age.” The more muscle mass we have, the more calories we burn at rest. Our basal metabolic rate, the number of calories your body needs at rest, also increases with more muscle mass. Studies show that maintaining a healthy weight is also critical for increasing longevity. A 2021 meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Psychology examining over 2.8 million people, found staying within a healthy BMI range was associated with a longer life.
Helps You Age Healthily
Although supplement companies and skin-care products bombard us with promises of eternal youth, the real key to staying young and living a long life lies within our muscles. “As we age, our muscles naturally decrease in mass and in strength. This is called sarcopenia, a condition that can lead to falls, breaks and weakness that could negatively impact your way of life,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, a media dietitian, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table. Therefore, investing in our muscle health by building and maintaining muscle mass allows us to stay active, mobile and independent for longer, per the National Institute on Aging.
May Lower Your Risk of Chronic Disease
Studies have also linked higher muscle mass to a lower risk of developing chronic diseases. As Thomason points out, “More muscle mass is associated with better health outcomes long term, that can be anything from cardiovascular disease [to] comorbidities.” A 2020 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health found that adults with the highest muscle tissue were 81% less likely to experience a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke, and also had lower rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. Similarly, a 2022 meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that maintaining muscle through muscle-strengthening activities was associated with a 10% to 17% reduced risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer and diabetes.
Supports Your Entire Body
Maintaining our muscle mass supports other systems within our body, too. Taub-Dix explains, “Maintaining and supporting your muscles can help support your immune system, your bones, your mental health, your gastrointestinal health and so much more.” Other body systems, including our immune system, slow down and weaken as we age. According to a 2019 review published in The Lancet, a weak immune system may make us more susceptible to illnesses and infections. However, exercise not only helps us maintain our muscle mass, but it can also help strengthen our immune system function.
Related: How Much Protein You Should Eat to Build Muscle
The 3 Best Ways to Maintain Muscle
Eat Enough Protein
While some people would never miss a serving of protein on their plates at mealtimes, others may struggle to consume enough of it or fail to distribute their intake of it throughout the day. However, as Thomason points out, “Eating enough protein helps maintain our muscle mass, as protein is a building block for muscle tissue.” You can find protein-rich foods in animal sources like chicken, eggs, seafood, yogurt, milk and cheese. However, plant-based foods like tofu, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds are also great protein sources. Research published in 2019 in Nutrients suggests adults may need more than the previous recommendation of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and states a range of 1.3 to 1.8 grams per kilogram is more optimal. For a 150-pound person, this translates to 89 to 123 grams of protein per day. That said, there are different instances when these recommendations might not fit for you, such as if you have a risk of kidney disease. Talk to your health care provider or a registered dietitian to identify the right amount of protein for you.
Need some high-protein meal inspo? Get your mouth watering with these High-Protein Breakfast Ideas.
Be Physically Active
Ever heard the saying “Use it or lose it”? Well, that applies to our muscles. They will likely shrink and become weak if we aren’t using them. As Thomason explains, any type of weight-bearing exercise, such as walking or running, helps maintain our muscle mass as we age and protects our bone health. During exercise, our muscles apply pressure to our bones, helping them increase in strength, according to the Bone Health and Osteoporosis Foundation. Strong mucscles can also help prevent falls, a major risk factor for age-related decline. The key is to find a form of exercise you enjoy. “In order to make your activity regular, try to make it fun! Don’t call it “exercise.” Make it dancing, walking your dog, hiking or going to the gym,” says Taub-Dix.
Do Strength Training
Strength training, also known as resistance training, is one of the most important and effective exercises to combat aging. “Strength training not only helps maintain muscle mass but also build muscle mass and thus improve our metabolism for longevity,” says Thomason. Every push, pull or lift you do contributes to building vital muscle. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends shooting for two weekly strength-training sessions that target all major muscle groups. Whether you lift free weights, attend a kettlebell class, or use your own body weight to do pushups or squats, it all counts!
Other Things to Consider for Muscle Maintenance
Besides the protein, ensure you are eating enough total calories, too. Eating enough will keep all systems within your body firing, keep your muscles nourished and give you energy to engage in both regular activity and strength training. Finally, make sure you are getting enough shut-eye. Sleep is vital to your overall health and works to restore and rebuild systems within your body, including your muscles. A 2023 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that people who had slept better lived longer.
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The Bottom Line
We may not be able to turn back the clock, but we can do plenty to support a longer life and improve our life expectancy. Maintaining our muscle mass can keep our metabolism firing, help us reduce the risk of disease, and keep the rest of our body healthy. While many things help you maintain your muscle mass, three strategies that have been proven to help are eating enough protein, staying physically active and doing resistance training. In addition, make sure you are feeding your body with adequate calories and prioritizing enough sleep; both are vital for nurturing muscles to defy the years.
Related: 7-Day Meal Plan to Gain More Muscle
Read the original article on Eating Well.