The Importance of Muscle

What you need to know:

1) Muscle mass is an important factor in terms of both health and longevity.

2) Don’t simply look to change your weight to improve your health, instead focus on improving you body composition.

3) Exercise, and in particular resistance exercise and sprinting, are great tools for preserving and improving muscle mass.

Continuing my series of posts in response to the horizon programme on fat vs sugar I wanted to flag up the importance of muscle mass, which was discussed in the body composition results of the twins. The important point was made that losing weight by losing muscle mass is a bad thing. Indeed the importance of muscle mass to your health is widely underrated; studies have identified muscle mass as an important independent indicator of health and survival. [1]

Muscle is so important for health because it not only up regulates your base metabolic rate, [2]  meaning you are burning more calories without even trying and allowing you to stay leaner, but also because muscle serves as a really important store of amino acids within the body, which it relies upon at times of severe trauma or illness. For example one study found that, in the case of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, patients with a low mid thigh muscle cross section (<70 cm) had a survival rate which was four times lower than that of patients with an average sized muscle cross section. [3] In short muscle helps you stay thinner and makes you more resilient in the face of trauma and illness. Furthermore muscle wastage is a key part of the ageing process [4] so building muscle helps you to fight the passage of time.

The point here is that the weight on the scale does not tell the whole story. When you diet and lose weight without exercising around half of that weight will be muscle. If you want to achieve health and longevity your goal should be to improve your body composition, rather than simply to get the weight on the scale moving downwards. To this end including some exercise in your routine is very important for long term health; simply keeping your weight down is not enough. If you already exercise regularly but tend to stick to catabolic long distance workouts like running or cycling you might want to incorporate some sprinting or some resistance training as this will stimulate muscle growth. So when you are looking to improve your performance, health and longevity don’t think purely in terms of weight or only look at your diet in isolation, and remember the importance of muscle.



[2] (Obesity and Muscle)

[3] Gray-Donald K, Gibbons L, Shapiro SH, et al. Nutritional status and mortality in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 1996; 153: 961–966


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