Resolve to Get Strong

muscle strength Jan 05, 2023

Skip the fad diets and detoxes. This year, resolve to do the one thing that improves health-span and lifespan—make muscle.

The new year inevitably ushers in a fresh crop of diet books and 30-day detoxes. Skip the keto, low-carb, and fasting.  Detoxes and cleanses are no more than marketing scams with no real research support. If you want to do one thing that will improve your health, body composition, and lifespan—start a dedicated resistance training program and make muscle. This is especially true for females who start with less muscle mass, are at higher risk for muscle loss with age, and suffer a greater risk for premature death when muscle is low than males.

Women generally have less muscle than our male counterparts, especially in the upper body. We also go through the menopause transition, which research describes as a “vulnerable period for the loss of muscle mass” because of the loss in sex hormones. Muscle cell studies show that when researchers take estrogen away from animals, their ability to regenerate muscle stem cells can drop 30 to 60 percent. Muscle biopsies in women during the menopause transition show the same thing. A 2021 study found that women in late perimenopause had 10 percent less appendicular (i.e., arms and legs) skeletal muscle mass than those in early perimenopause. Late perimenopausal and postmenopausal women also had a greater likelihood of having sarcopenia (involuntary muscle loss) than early perimenopausal or premenopausal women. 

Muscle and Mortality

Maintaining your skeletal muscle is essential not just for strength, power, and exercise performance, but for life (literally)! Appendicular muscle mass helps predict longevity in adults 65 and older, especially women. In a Brazilian study of 839 older adults, the investigators found that mortality risk increased in women with low muscle mass in their arms and legs by nearly 63-fold during the four-year study period (compared to an 11.4 fold increase in mortality risk among the men in the study).

2022 study of more than 1200 women and men ages 40 and older found that skeletal muscle mass is a better predictor of mortality than BMI or fat mass. And another 2022 study of 115,489 participants (70,451 of whom were women) ages 65 to 74 found that two to six bouts of muscle-strengthening activity per week were associated with a lower risk of death from any cause.

Muscle and Health

Muscle is health protective on many levels. For one, it allows you to be more active, which we know is good for health and longevity. It also pulls glucose from the bloodstream without the help of insulin, so helps manage blood sugar levels and lowers the risk for insulin resistance.

Those metabolic health benefits may be a big reason why skeletal muscle is so good for your heart. In fact, when it comes to cardiovascular health, women should prioritize making muscle over losing weight and/or fat. A 2021 study found that women with high muscle mass are less likely to die from heart disease, and that fat mass was not as big of a heart disease risk in women as in men.

Regular muscle strengthening exercise like resistance training has also been linked to a lower risk of cancer and diabetes.

Muscle loss also puts your bones in jeopardy, which is something you can’t afford as a woman. Both tend to decrease more rapidly during the menopause transition, so it’s important for women to make and maintain muscle throughout their lives to preserve their skeletal health.  

Finally, if you’re tempted by the slew of New Year’s diets to improve body composition, resistance training can do that, too. Research shows that strength training can significantly increase fat metabolism during and after training and reduce visceral (deep belly) fat.

Make Muscle!

If you want to optimize your performance, health span, and lifespan, resistance training is non-negotiable. It’s important that your regimen includes heavy lifting, especially as you get older and near the menopause transition, because heavy resistance training stimulates muscle stem cells to help you make and maintain muscle.

Ideally, you should be lifting three days a week. (If you’re an endurance athlete, you can lift twice a week in season.) During heavy lifting sessions, you want to aim for 3 to 5 sets of 6 or fewer reps with full rest (i.e., 2 to 5 minutes) between sets.

It’s important to work up to lifting heavy, and if you’re new to lifting, build up a foundation of muscular endurance with more moderate weights and higher repetitions for a month or two and get comfortable moving weight.

Proper form is essential. A trainer can help you learn how to execute lifts like squats and deadlifts correctly. You should complete every rep with good form. Heavy lifting is best done on “big lifts” like deadlifts, squats, lunges, and other Olympic lifts that spread the force out among your major muscles, connective tissues, and joints. 

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