• Nicholas Kent

Muscle; Not Just Aesthetics

The association of muscle, strength, lifting and general fitness culture as being solely a pursuit of aesthetics and vanity is something that is, in my mind, one of the most problematic issues in the domain of exercise and strength, but that's a grievance for a different day...

It's one of the toughest sells, despite the obvious underlying logic to most people, that lifting is critically important for your health. This is especially prevalent to those that usually need it the most, which is probably the generation most influenced by a point in history when lifting culture had it's boom into mainstream consciousness - the Arnold era. Overall, we have to thank Arnold Schwarzenegger for his contribution to modern life and how he kind of bought fitness, muscle and strength to the masses. As they always say, any publicity is good publicity and the net benefit is positive. I'd much rather live in a world where people have an idea of this stuff than starting from a blank slate, because let's be real - if historical context and influence around this stuff didn't exist, body building and lifting just looks and seems really odd.

But the unfortunate side of this is that a now ageing generation, some whom may have even participated in 'chest and bicep days' back in their heyday, basically identify lifting as being solely that thing; training hard, heavy weights, getting big pecs, huge arms and tight abs. A pursuit for the years of our youth whilst we're still in it, a pursuit for boys and men, a pursuit for vanity. A lot of this sentiment has certainly trickled down through the generations in somewhat different forms, such was the magnitude and gravity of Arnold and his legacy over time. Whilst in modern times, fitness, strength and lifting is seen as more multidimensional, it's strongest and most common strain in society is still in the image of a man, in a gym, in the prime of his life, with python thickness veins popping out of tree trunk arms and a sweaty glare.

"Oh, I'm too old for that stuff..."

The logistics of gaining, maintaining or more relevantly - attenuating loss - of muscle for the average Jane and Joe is a vast topic worth being addressed in depth a different day, but if there were a couple of things I would vehemently press it is this; doing so is not as crazy as the Pumping Iron documentary, and you won't look like Arnold circa 1975 by learning barbells... if that's not your thing. If I could elaborate a little though, it is to stress that muscle itself is a vital and underappreciated commodity that contributes to our general health and the fighting of chronic disease and acute responses to critical illness (Wolfe, 2006). Muscle tissue, whilst being primarily responsible for our physical movement, also plays a role of storage of nutrients for the body, like an internal inventory for when food, then body fat, isn't available to use as fuel. When we fall seriously ill or suffer traumatic injury, we are in a stressed state, which relies on greater energy/fuel and cellular material demand to recover ourselves. As we're usually bereft of apatite when in a stressed state, the body turns inwards to gather the energy/fuel/materials for the recovery effort. It uses whatever food you give it, the body fat we generally have on hand and most critically - the amino acids/proteins that our muscle holds. Organs like skin, brain, heart and liver need amino acids for survival and thus require a steady state of amino acids in the bloodstream to keep them functioning and to, essentially, assist in their very preservation. In the absence of protein/amino acids from food, this is when the body turns inwards and goes to the muscle - we start breaking down our own muscle tissue to maintain the needed amino acid levels in the bloodstream to keep these vital organs kicking, and ergo, us alive.

Realise that when you see somebody who appears thin and gaunt - we instinctively associate that with illness and frailty. It's because the breakdown of muscle as a fuel/material source is apparent - a strategy usually reserved for dire situations against stress, disease, injury and illness (Biolo et al. 2002). Hence eye-test indicators like bodily thinning due to clear muscle/protein wasting and physical weakness are a real 'canary in the coalmine' for some version of dangerous systemic stress that ought to be investigated or simply common symptoms of critical illness. Either way, muscle itself may not be the direct cure for these things, but it's presence or absence can be significant. As mentioned, our vital organs need amino acid supply to function and muscle acts as that supply when nutrition is inadequate, so it stands to logic that the more muscle we have, the better equipped we will be. Muscle tissue acts as the primary protein reservoir for amino acid supply in an emergency, the more stocked you are, the stronger you'll be - not just physically, but systemically. And this can go on for a long time - the capacity for muscle tissue itself to do this is remarkable, with obese individuals (of high fat and muscle composition) maintaining normal concentrations of blood amino acids for survival after 60 days of fasting (Drenick et al. 1964).

We all hope and pray that we never are faced with the peril of critical illness in our lives. Though you never really know, I feel like waiting around for the day we inevitably get struck down is kinda a shoddy way to live life. I guess what I'm trying to say is that life's too short to be fearing these extreme scenarios, but this isn't the reason to not honour the other long term health benefits of lifting on a more day-to-day level. Many common chronic diseases, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, sarcopenia and frailty are all subject to influence by the role of skeletal muscle mass. In terms of treating obesity, an often over-looked issue where lifting, muscle and strength can lend a very helping hand, muscle mass has significant effect on resting energy expenditure (REE), or better understood in the mainstream - the famous and much maligned resting metabolism. In practical terms, something like a 10kg difference in muscle mass (which is conservative) and with conservative stable assumptions around physiology, diet, exercise etc. would equate to roughly a difference of something like 4.7kg fat gain per year! (Wolfe, 2006) Doesn't sound like much, but 15kg in 3 years is when things get noticeable. Three years is probably the timeline between catch-ups with the friends you hate and family members you don't care about, in both scenarios 15kg can be a disaster (depending on how you are about stuff...) and that's before getting into the long-term clinical implications if this keeps rolling. But whilst being clinically obese does infer a generally higher muscle mass by default also (Hibbert et al, 1994), the effect of strength exercise to maintain and increase muscle tissue helps to consolidate diet and other interventions to deal with obesity by way of essentially making you a better calorie burning machine, in a sense. So if you're already unhealthily big, chances are you're in a better spot to get healthily smaller and lifting will certainly do that - despite some misconceptions.

Usually coupled with clinical obesity is that other major metabolic disease - type 2 diabetes (T2DM). Something like 1.2mil adult Australians had T2DM in 2017-18, resulting in 11% of total Australian deaths in 2017 (Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, 2020), so that's 4.9% of the total population with T2DM, or 1 in 20 adult folks... However you want to put it, it's definitely a thing. So please, watch out for the varying factors! Anyways, what muscle mass and all it's glory does against T2DM is profound. T2DM is commonly the result of insulin insensitivity, which deranges the regulation of blood sugar and generally causes pancreatic damage as well as many other long-term nasties such as heart disease, nerve damage, gangrene, kidney damage and vision problems (healthline.com). There's also a fair bit of more acute pains in the ass such as ravenous thirst, weird fruity breath, and brutal/dangerous blood sugar crashing or spiking from food and such. Either way, it's not cool and the despite there being some genetic factors to one's risk, the lump of preventative measures is in general lifestyle factors - diet, stress and the big one here; exercise, particularly muscle building exercise. Muscle cells play a very important primary role in keeping blood sugar in check by, basically interacting with insulin which then causes muscle to clear blood sugar out of the bloodstream by kind of sucking it up and metabolising (processing) it, thus regulating how much glucose (sugar) is in the blood. If muscle starts to dysfunction and can't suck up and process the blood sugar, then this is where insulin insensitivity is born - insulin itself cannot get muscle to do what needs to be done. I really don't want to go further down the clinical rabbit holes of diabetes and others than I already am, so I'll try be concise. Essentially the more active and present your muscle mass is, by way of the physical amount of muscle you carry as well as how much it is built up, broken down, resynthesized (all very important and healthy cellular processes) and basically utilized, the healthier and thus more capable that muscle is. An active, robust muscle cell is way more likely to do it's job correctly than an inactive one and obviously the more muscle cells we have like this, the better... You can see where I'm going with this. Anyways, point is - muscle stressing, repairing and rebuilding is the key to robust, active and healthier muscle that functions accordingly, thus significantly reducing your risk of T2DM, or majorly helping with it's general treatment all together... It's weird how in some ways the body builders were actually on to some things.

Okay, this piece has gone on too far and longer than what I intended when I started, but I've gone over the critically important aspects of muscle and it's overlooked best health attributes from both acute/critical care to longer term lifestyle stuff. I could absolutely go further and delve deeper, as the avenues are endless but I feel like I've somewhat got a message across today. Muscle mass in terms of our health usually just gets lumped or fogged off as something helpful on the periphery, the way a great haircut can lift your spirits or socialising with friends can be a healthy outlet - both clinically considered, but rarely thought of as something integral. I'm here to say that muscle mass absolutely is clinically integral, it's pursuit a very unhelpful misrepresentation and it's importance a very dangerous underestimation.

Muscle is both the chassis and the engine, providing cover against the world around us, movement to drive us forward, a back up generator to the vital systems within as well as the machinery to help regulate and keep the internal environment at clockwork.

The body's thankless utility and all-rounder often forgotten.


R.R. Wolfe. The underappreciated role of muscle in health and disease. American Journal Clinical Nutrition. 2006

Biolo et al. Inverse relation of protein turnover and amino acid transport in skeletal muscle of hypercatabolic patients. Journal Clinical Endocrinological Metabolism. 2002)

Drenick et al. Prolonged starvation as treatment for obesity. JAMA. 1964

Hibbert et al. Determinants of free-living energy expenditure in normal weight and obese women measured by doubly labelled water. Obesity Research.1994

Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, 2020. aihw.gov.au