Updated: Apr 8, 2021
It was in my mid-forties when I started noticing that certain pieces of furniture or our cast iron skillet or 7 bags of groceries (at once) were suddenly quite heavy for me! The most alarming realisation was when I went to the woods with my children and I could barely hoist myself up into a tree - - I had always climbed trees with them - - how was this possible that my strength was waning?
Muscle is the key to good health... Having higher muscle mass and strength is important because it :
is associated with a decrease in all-cause mortality.
is associated with better recovery rates from acute and chronic illnesses (even cancer).
boosts your metabolism
is associated with decreased obesity
improves insulin sensitivity
improves bone density and strength.
is associated with longevity!
Look over that list again - it is remarkable! All of these factors not only trend a longer life, but a better quality of life.
Consider the muscles used to 'catch' yourself when you trip or miss a step on the stairs. In the first decades of life, the muscles you use to balance or compensate for the misstep are still intact, but as the years go on they gradually disappear unless you continue to work on them.
An interesting task that illustrates this is the unipedal stance test. Here is a video of how you do it. You stand barefoot, cross your arms over your chest, close your eyes, and lift one foot off the ground. Count how many seconds you are able to hold that foot up, as soon as you touch, stop the clock. The length of time a person can do this is correlated with age... are your muscles younger than the norm?
Another scenario to consider is the person who is recovering from an illness or accident. As they are convalescing, the body is pulling proteins from their muscle to aid in healing and, especially if there is decreased appetite, being broken down for energy expense. A person who has less muscle at the start of the illness is going to have more difficulty recovering.
Lastly, consider that a person with less muscle has less storage space for the sugars they eat. Muscles have small stores of energy (called glycogen) which act as a dumping ground for the excess sugars. These stores help prevent the onset of metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes.
How to build and maintain muscle
There are three main ways to help your body build muscle.
The first one was discussed in part one: boost human growth hormone.
The second one is obvious: EXCERCISE! Whether it is an active, aerobic outdoor sport like walking, cycling, rowing, or swimming; or an indoor activity like weight-lifting, dancing, squash, or callisthenics. The most important thing is to DO IT! Muscle can be built in as little as 10 minutes a day.
The last muscle-building technique could be the most important one:
EAT PROTEIN: eat 1g/KG of lean body mass per day or roughly 30g per meal. Not just any protein, though, it must be a complete protein. Protein is made up of amino acids, most of which are manufactured in the body. However, 9 of them are termed 'essential' because we do not make them in our body; we have to source them from our food. To build muscle we have to eat food containing all nine of the essential amino acids = a complete protein.
Which foods have all of the essential amino acids?
All animal products have all nine amino acids. There are six plants foods; mushrooms and the five shown in the infographic above. Other plant foods have some of the necessary amino acids, which is why those plant foods need to be combined together to be a whole source (think rice with beans or peanut butter with toast or a salad with seeds).
If and when you eat the right amount of protein, your body will start building muscle, even if you are not exercising! As you get older, the amount of protein you need increases to obtain the same muscle synthesis. Eating protein is the only way to increase or maintain your muscle mass.
If you are regularly exercising but you do not eat sufficient protein, you will gain strength, which is still important, but you will not gain muscle mass, which is key to the longevity health benefits for the body.
I personally have made eating protein and exercising a priority in my life because I want to be able to enjoy my family and friends for as long as possible.