The Importance of Muscle Mass to Longevity

Muscle tissue is one of the largest and most important organs in the body. It accounts for nearly half the body’s mass in a normal weight person. (1) It’s not surprising that muscle mass profoundly affects overall health and vitality.

More Muscle Means Living Longer

Lean muscle mass is responsible for all sorts of physical processes: metabolism, hormonal regulation, and the ability to move and engage in the activities of daily living. Having more muscle means you burn more calories, you can get around more easily, and you’ll recover better and faster from illnesses, falls, surgeries, and injuries. 

But you might be surprised to learn that muscle mass is also one of the best predictors of longevity. The more muscle you have, the longer you are likely to live. (2)

Numerous studies have shown that all-cause mortality is significantly lower in people with higher muscle mass. (345) Strength training reduced the risk of death by 46% in one study. (6)

Handgrip strength, which is a measure of total body muscle strength, can reliably predict mortality, health, and mobility, even decades later. Better grip (muscle) strength means a lower risk of dying from any cause. (78)

Muscle Decreases as We Age

As we age, we typically lose muscle mass due to natural shifts in our hormones. When we are young, we have plenty of growth hormone and insulin to stimulate muscle activity and give us energy. As we age, our bodies naturally slow down production of those hormones, so our muscle mass is primarily determined by exercise and diet. (9)  

Sedentary Lifestyle Contributes to Muscle Loss

Unfortunately, today’s sedentary lifestyle means that most of us are not using our muscles enough to maintain them as we age. Without use, our muscles will break down in a process called catabolism. 

According to research, sedentary people generally lose about 3-5% muscle mass per year after age 30. (10) With such a huge loss of muscular metabolism means it’s all too easy to gain fat mass instead. 

Muscle atrophy also leads to decreased mobility – it’s harder to get around. This also means an increased risk for falls and other injuries, and more difficulty recovering when they do happen.

Strength Training Maintains Muscle Mass 

Luckily, we can regenerate our muscles through physical activity and resistance training (this is called anabolism). We can actively maintain our health and vitality by building and maintaining our muscle mass.

Resistance training is a beneficial stressor. When we lift weights, our muscles get broken down, and then recover much stronger. Strength training increases growth hormone and testosterone, both important for healthy aging. (11)

Strength training also changes the metabolism, allowing blood sugar to enter the muscles more readily. Lowering your blood sugar reduces inflammation, another key to aging well. (12,13)

Moderate Resistance Training is Best

When it comes to resistance training, more is not always better. Moderate strength training reduces your risk of death, but training too intensely or too frequently has the opposite effect. Too much lifting and not enough recovery can cause a cascade of stress in the body that does more harm than good in the long run. (14)

Movement Is Always the Answer

Humans are meant to move on a regular basis. There’s rightly a lot of focus on the ideal human diet, but we must also consider the ideal human lifestyle, which includes lots of low- to moderate-intensity activity, plenty of walking, and short bursts of more intense exercise like resistance training to maintain muscle mass. 

Do you engage in strength training as part of your fitness regime? Let us know in comments!