Like muscle, I am starting out today’s chat with a strong proposal: Muscle is likely our best bet for anti-aging and disease prevention. In fact, I think it is the secret weapon we’ve been waiting to understand and embrace.
What do you mean by muscle? Although the body contains three types of muscle, the muscle I refer to here is the voluntary, smooth muscle that makes up 30-40% of our body mass. This includes the gluts and hamstring muscles and the muscles that make up our core, back, and arms. Essentially, the muscle that makes us move.
But here’s where it gets complicated: Muscle can be healthy or unhealthy. Healthy muscle is lean and rich with healing mitochondria (mighty mitochondria determine the quality and quantity of the muscle we have). But becomes unhealthy when too much fat, known as intramuscular fat, accumulates inside the muscle.
This is important because muscle influences everything. In fact, the health of our muscle determines if we will be tired at the end of the day or still bounding with energy, it dictates our ability to control weight, and affects our risk for chronic disease, such as heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes. It also impacts our ability to wage war against cancer and, in our elderly years, having healthy muscle can help us survive a hospital stay.
Why is this? It comes down to protein. Quite simply, protein is important because our organs, such as the heart and liver, need it to keep us alive. Think of healthy muscle as a vibrant machine that regulates protein in the body. A muscle’s job is to absorb protein from the diet, store it, and then make deliveries to the organs.
Conversely, unhealthy muscle is broken and ineffective at regulating protein savings and distribution. To complicate this, illness and injury cause the organs to require more protein. Organs use that extra protein to battle against everything from an annoying head cold to life-threatening cancer. So when muscle is unhealthy, protein is taken from the muscle itself, which means you have even less muscle than you did before. Factor in aging: At 50 we lose 1-2% of muscle mass each year and after 60 this increases to 3% a year–it begins to make sense why healthy muscle should be considered our secret weapon for aging gracefully.
How do you know if muscle is healthy or laden with fat? Short of costly procedures to have a look inside your muscle, a good way to know if your muscle leans toward healthy is how much you move on a consistent basis.
Do you regularly walk, run, spin, or lift? Or, does your routine more resemble this: Walking from the parking garage to your desk and back again only to run (um, drive) to pick up the kiddos and, after a quick spin through the grocery store and dinner chores, you end the day by lifting yourself onto the couch?
But, there is good news. Thankfully, the body is a wonderful and amazing machine. Muscles can manufacture fat-burning, energy-boosting, anti-aging mitochondria. All you have to do is exercise (and follow a nutrient-dense eating program).
The more consistent you are with workouts – whether that’s running, walking, cycling, swimming, weight-lifting, circuit training, or a combination of these – the more mitochondria your muscles will produce, which means the more effective your muscles will be at saving and distributing protein. When the organs have the protein they need, the better equipped they are to fight disease, chronic illness, limited mobility, pain, and all those things that happen to us as we age.
With regular activity, a balanced, nutritious diet, and loads of healthy muscle, you can depend on your body to be a lean, mean anti-aging machine. Phew!