Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Muscles, But Were Afraid to Ask!

…OR...“The Underappreciated Role of Muscle in Health and Disease”...

…which is the title of some research published about 10 years ago, and which is particularly relevant to many topics on this site.

So, Muscle? Did you know...you have quite a lot of it? Not just biceps and triceps, or a ‘six-pack’, the show-off muscles which is probably what people think of when the subject of muscles is raised. You have muscle all over your body. In fact quite a large amount of your body is muscle.

Skeletal muscle is the correct way to describe it. It’s attached to your skeleton, and it enables you to move - and to be still, to stand, for instance, or to sit. The other muscles in your body, in case you’re interested, are ‘smooth’ muscle, which makes up the system for propelling food around your digestive tract, and ‘cardiac’ muscle, which is your heart, of course.

A good estimate is that the percentage of your body that is skeletal muscle is between 28% and 39% for women and between 38% and 54% for men. Are you surprised just how high those figures are? Surprised or not, it follows that since skeletal muscle makes up such a high percentage of your body, if you don’t look after it, that’s a large proportion of your body going downhill.

Why is it so important? One reason is that loss of muscle can mean a seriously reduced capacity to perform everyday activities, let alone all the sports that Silver Grey athletes take part in. We have also reported on how exercise, which maintains muscle, contributes to brain health. Now we have come across another piece of research, which describes the many ways in which muscle is fundamental to overall health as well.

The research is the aforementioned “The Underappreciated Role of Muscle in Health and Disease” and was carried out by Robert R Wolfe at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. Here is some of what it says.

1. All one’s internal organs and vital tissue require a constant supply of amino acids in order to function properly. Apart from when you eat food and digest it, at which time the supply comes direct from the gut, muscles are the principal source of this requirement. To quote the report “Muscle plays a central role in whole-body protein metabolism by serving as the principal reservoir for amino acids to maintain protein synthesis in vital tissues and organs in the absence of amino acid absorption from the gut”.

Therefore too little muscle mass results in your internal organs not being able to operate as effectively as they might. Rather gruesomely, post mortem inspection of people who have starved to death has found that the final nail in the coffin (so to speak) comes when muscle loss has advanced to the point where there is not enough muscle to supply your internal organs with the amino acids they require so they stop functioning!

2. Muscle mass helps the body to survive stressful situations, when the requirement for protein and amino acids rises. Again to quote “The stressed state, such as that associated with sepsis, advanced cancer, and traumatic injury, imposes greater demands for amino acids from muscle protein ….”. Therefore the ability to cope with serious injury or critical illness is diminished by loss of muscle mass.

3. The same can be said of the ability to deal with chronic disease.

4. Having an adequate amount of muscle is an important contributor to the body’s ability to maintain a healthy level of body fat. The body’s energy balance is the relationship between energy taken in and energy used. Too much taken in and too little used up results in a build up of body fat. A principal factor in determining a body’s energy use is its Resting Energy Expenditure (REE), which is the amount of energy - measured in calories - that the body uses simply by being. The more muscle one has, the higher one’s REE, due to muscle being an active body part even when at rest (whereas body fat is a passive body part and uses no calories just by being).

So more muscle means that more of the energy taken in (as food) is used even before adding in the energy used for any physical movement such as walking, carrying something, exercising and so on.

5. Alterations in the metabolic function of muscle are seen to be a likely factor in the onset of type 2 diabetes.

6. Maintaining muscle is an important contributor to countering osteoporosis, something that is particularly important for women. Again quoting from the report “Mechanical force on bone is essential for modelling and remodelling, processes that increase bone strength and mass. Whereas body weight and weight-bearing exercises provide a direct mechanical force on bones, the largest voluntary loads on bone are proposed to come from muscle contractions”.

Basically, resistance exercise, which maintains / increases muscle mass, also maintains bone density.

So here are ways in which muscle maintenance contributes to overall health.

The relevance to age is that, to quote from a study from 2000 published in the Journal of Applied Physiology “The amount of muscle you have in your body, …. decreases as you age and dramatically after age 45” something mentioned earlier.

This is not news, of course. It is well known that muscle is easily lost, once you get past 50 or so, through atrophy or muscle wastage. For instance internet physician Dr Michael Roizen says “We lose an average of 5 percent of our muscle mass every 10 years after the age of 35 —.” This loss is known as Sarcopenia, and we think that it is a major factor in the reduction of people’s ability to deal with the world and in reduced quality of life.

However, all is not lost as the critically important part of Dr Roizen’s statement is the second part where he goes on to say “ - if we don't do anything about it”.

And at SGSC one of our core messages is that you can do something about it.

There are many studies that report that in age there is less ability to build muscle to counter muscle loss through Sarcopenia. The best that can be hoped for is to get as much muscle as you need at the age when you can build muscle and then do what you can to keep it or at least to lose it as slowly as possible.

But at SGSC we are not of the opinion that muscle can’t be built later in life.

When we - in our sixties - are lucky enough to do a lot of surfing, say, during the summer months, the effect on our physiques is quite noticeable - as it also is when we work with weights in the gym at any time of the year. Similarly, when we were interviewing then 95 year old world record holder Dr Charles Eugster, his physical trainer Sylvia Gattiker related an experiment she had conducted in which she worked with some residents of an old people’s home and who were able to substantially build lower body muscle under her training regime. On top of that, she has certainly enabled Dr Eugster to come back from the Sarcopenia he suffered in his eighties. And there is a hard-to-find, but highly entertaining documentary, from Leopard Films, entitled “Bodybuilding Pensioners”? Those people certainly are not demonstrating an inability to build muscle!

And finally, there is also scientific research to support that idea. Scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston say you can build muscle well after the age of fifty - which is the age at which the traditional viewpoint has it that you can no longer build muscle. They have done tests which showed the exact opposite : older bodies are just as good as young ones at turning protein-rich food into muscle.

So even if you are not interested to go down the competitive body-building route (we’re not!), maintaining your muscle to a functional level is one of the best things you can do for yourself. So make sure you include strength exercises as part of your regular exercise regime.

And if you do build up some of that “show-off” muscle, then maybe one might have to accept that a ‘little’ vanity does have some benefits to health too!!