a well-known joke in the bodybuilding community that the way to stay youthful is to be “jacked and tan”. Perhaps your mind is conjuring the idea of bronzed older men on the beach flexing their biceps, their slightly wrinkled faces gleaming in the sun.
And while it may seem like an oversimplification, there is actually a lot of truth to this longevity lore.
We’ve long known that vitamin D status is inversely related to every chronic disease – from cancer and diabetes to heart disease, osteoporosis and even Alzheimer’s.
And new research shows that muscle does a lot more than makes your clothes fit better. Skeletal muscle is actually a “longevity organ” and a very accurate predictor of your disease risk and future health.
Muscle Weakness Is the “New Smoking”
Researchers at the University of Michigan recently discovered the weaker your grip strength, the older your biological age.
In the study, the researchers evaluated biological age and grip strength of 1,274 middle aged and older adults. They used three “age-acceleration clocks” based on DNA methylation – a process that provides a molecular marker to estimate the rate of aging.
The study found that both older men and women showed an association between lower grip strength and accelerated biological aging, tracked over a decade. As stated in the study, this research suggests that:
“If you maintain your muscle strength across the lifespan, you may be able to protect against many common age-related diseases. We know that smoking, for example, can be a powerful predictor of disease and mortality […] Muscle weakness could be the new smoking.”
Past studies have found that low grip strength is an extremely strong predictor of adverse health events.
In fact, one study published in the Lancet found that grip strength is a more accurate predictor of cardiovascular events – including heart attack – than systolic blood pressure! Other studies show a strong association between muscle weakness, chronic disease, and death.
It is well-known that muscle is vital for mobility as we age. We also know that building and maintaining muscle is one of the most important ways to boost your number one anti-aging compound, human growth hormone (HGH).
But muscle’s impact on aging may have to do more with how it affects your overall metabolism.
Muscle is Your Biggest Metabolic Organ
Dr. Gabrielle Lyon, M.D. is an expert in nutritional science and geriatrics. As an expert in the field, she understands so well the role that muscle plays in aging and disease that she brands herself as practicing “muscle-centric medicine”.
“Muscle is the metabolic sink of the body. It determines almost everything about your body composition and overall health: how you regulate blood sugar, your ability to manage fats, and your fuel during times of illness.”
In fact, skeletal muscle is so important to your hormonal system, it can actually be considered your largest endocrine organ, comprising about 40% of your body.
Dr. Lyon believes we have a crisis of being “under-muscled”. And losing muscle – which naturally starts to happen in our 30’s – can lead to accelerated aging and an overall decline in health.
Of course, strength training can make you feel more youthful and energized. But it also directly contributes to your health and longevity by improving and optimizing:
1. Mobility, balance & physical function: Stronger muscles improve balance, agility, and movement, which helps to prevent falls and makes daily activities – like climbing stairs, carrying groceries and doing household chores – easier.
2. Metabolic health: Muscle tissue is where insulin-mediated glucose is disposed and converted to energy. More muscle equals greater insulin sensitivity and reduced risk of diabetes and other metabolic conditions.
3. Cardiovascular health: Increased muscle mass improves cardiovascular health by reducing blood pressure and improving cholesterol and triglyceride profiles.
4. Weight management: Skeletal muscle is “active tissue” – it burns calories around the clock just to maintain itself, even while you are sleeping or sitting. For every pound of new muscle, your body burns an additional 60 calories per day. Three pounds of muscle burns as many calories as a one-mile run – and that’s while you’re sitting still. Add five pounds of new muscle and you will automatically burn an additional 31 pounds of fat in a year!
5. Brain performance: Increased muscle mass has been shown to help prevent the onset of dementia, improve memory, and boost executive function, the cognitive process that helps you plan, organize, and complete tasks. Muscle tissue also produces a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is important for the growth and survival of brain neurons.
6. Immune function: White blood cells and antibodies are the foundation of your immune system. And they are made from protein. When you have well-developed muscles, you have a ready supply of protein to produce immune cells. Studies have also shown that Natural Killer Cells are also directly proportional to muscle mass in the older population.
The more muscle and strength you maintain, the greater resistance you will have to chronic disease and the more likely it is you will enjoy optimal physical function as you age.
We are all going to die at some point – that cannot be avoided. But it is possible to enjoy healthy longevity and pack more “life” in your years. And maintaining muscle tissue is the primary key!
Feed & Strengthen Your Muscles for a Long, Disease-Free Life
While strength training is a must, there is something else you need to build, grow, and maintain your muscle: Dietary Protein!
The amino acids in protein are the starting materials your body requires for muscle synthesis. Muscle growth simply can’t happen without it!
Unfortunately, most of us aren’t getting enough high-quality protein in our diet. And this can lead to a wide variety of symptoms and health risks, including:
• Weakened immunity
• Poor sleep
• Increased risk of bone fracture
• Thinning hair and brittle nails
• Muscle loss
• Reduced metabolic rate
• Impaired blood sugar regulation
• Mood swings, anxiety and depression
• Poor wound healing
To combat protein deficiency, Dr. Lyon recommends 1 gram of high-quality protein per pound of ideal body weight. That means if you are significantly overweight, you should not base your calculations on your current weight, but rather your optimal or “goal weight”. Dr. Lyon recommends that most people should aim for 30-50 grams of protein per meal.
It is also important to define “high-quality protein” because all protein is not created equally.
Animal protein contains all nine essential amino acids and is therefore considered “complete”. Plant-based proteins are considered “incomplete” sources, as they do not have all nine amino acids. Plant protein is also not as easily digested as animal protein, making it an inferior choice.
In fact, one study published in the journal Nutrients, found the digestibility for meat was 100 percent, while the digestibility for beans ranged from 72 to 94 percent. This study also found that meat-eaters had 14 percent higher lean body mass than vegetarians.
Here are some good general guidelines for protein-rich foods to optimize your protein consumption:
• 1 egg = 7 grams protein
• 4 oz serving of chicken, fish, pork or beef = 25-29 grams protein
• 1 cup of Greek yogurt = 20 grams protein
• A serving of protein powder = 18-25 grams protein
In addition to consuming a high-quality, animal-based protein source at every meal, research shows that adding casein-rich whey protein before bedtime can dramatically increase muscle synthesis and metabolic rate throughout the night. So, if you have challenges with your sleep – and you want to improve muscle health – consider adding a whey shake “nightcap” to your evening routine!