As a naturopathic doctor, I have been intentional about the way I live. I eat well and regularly get enough sleep. I have always maintained an active lifestyle, beginning with competitive gymnastics as a child, backpacking, marathon running, bike commuting, trail running, yoga, and I am the mother of 2 children. Yet, at 45 years old I had suffered 3 ankle breaks in 3 years and chronic to sometimes acute back pain that stopped me in my tracks for days to weeks, stealing my fitness away. I wondered how someone who works so hard at health and well-being could be suffering this way. Was I really just getting old?
What is aging?
What is aging, other than the passage of time? In 2013, researchers characterized aging as a progressive loss of physiological integrity, leading to impaired function and increased vulnerability to death, and even identified 9 hallmarks of aging. Among these hallmarks are a variety of genetic and epigenetic effects (epigenetics has to do with whether or not a gene is actually expressed), plus:
- mitochondrial dysfunction (mitochondria are the powerhouse of every cell in the body)
- cellular senescence (oxidative stress and cell death)
- stem cell exhaustion (stem cells are what the body uses in order to repair itself)
- altered intercellular communication (endocrine, neuronal, and immune system signaling declines)
Naturopathic Medicine With Meghan Van Vleet ND
While in my practice I use therapeutic modalities to effect all of the hallmarks, in this blog post I focus on the bulleted hallmarks above. Why? Because as my astute colleague, Tyna Moore ND, DC has elucidated, these are all associated with sarcopenia, or diminished lean muscle mass. We know that breathing, eating well, drinking plenty of clean water and getting exercise are components of a healthy lifestyle. But you may not know that building muscle mass, specifically, is incredibly beneficial, far beyond physique and weight. In other words, yes, we can build muscle as medicine.
What Lean Muscle Mass Does For Us
Besides making a person strong, which has many benefits of its own, having and maintaining lean muscle mass:
- Increases cognitive function via BDNF
- Helps maintain blood sugar regulation and insulin sensitivity
- Reduces inflammation
- Increases metabolism
- Increases testosterone (beneficial for both men and women)
- Increases Human Growth Hormone (commonly prescribed for weight loss)
- Helps in the conversion of thyroid hormone from the inactive to the active form
- Increases mitochondrial synthesis (remember, mitochondria are the powerhouses of our body)
- Reduces pain (most notably back pain, but also neck other joint pain, fibromyalgia pain, etc)
- Improves immune function
- Offers better prognosis if confronted with a cancer diagnosis
- Increases bone density
- Improves mood
- Increases adaptive abilities to various stressors as we age
Who would not want all of that? More importantly, I bet there is something specific in that list that you could use more of. Most all conditions could benefit from increased muscle mass.
What is Sarcopenia?
Sarcopenia translates literally as “poverty of flesh” and refers to the muscle loss that typically begins between 30-40 years old. That is 8% loss of muscle mass per decade until the age of 70, and then it increases to 15% per decade. Arguably, with the population spending more and more time in front of devices, this is likely starting even younger. There is a relatively new term for seemingly thin people with poor, fatty muscle mass: TOFI – Thin outside, Fat Inside. TOFI refers to the finding that many people with a seemingly good BMI actually have fatty infiltrate in their muscles, classifying some as obese despite being thin. Folks with TOFI have all the health risks of the outwardly obese.
The Best Way to Build Lean Muscle Mass
The best, most efficient & comprehensive way to build muscle mass and functional strength is with strength training with free weights. Weight machines artificially isolate muscle groups and force movements that aren’t functional in nature, ie: don’t reproduce movements of your daily activities that you want to be strong in. Strength training with free weights requires the coordinated use of multiple muscle groups spanning multiple joints throughout the body and prepare the body to be strong in the face of everyday physical challenges. Additionally, using free weights increases grip strength; poor grip strength is a major risk factor for a fall.
Lean Muscle Mass Reduces Risk of Falls
Interestingly, the strongest risk factors for a fall as a person ages, all of which can be positively affected by strength training with free weights, include:
- mobility impairment
- reduced knee, hip, or ankle strength (strong, coordinated muscle groups surrounding a joint increase joint strength)
- reduced grip strength
- Difficulty arising from a chair (think loaded squats)
- Number of medications (see list of benefits of maintaining lean muscle mass above)
Build Muscle Mass Safely
The key to efficiently building lean muscle mass though is to do it safely, which requires a trainer, at least to start. Using free weights properly 2-3x/week as part of an active, healthy lifestyle is the key to “everyday fitness”, as Karen Harbour of Bella Strength in Boulder, CO calls it. Because the pain of sore muscles is different than the pain of inflamed joints, this everyday fitness is what can enable a person to do work around the house, the yard, maybe schlepping kids (or grandkids) & all their stuff, go on long runs, or whatever your jam is…without causing acute or chronic pain. You might be getting older and beginning to feel or show more vulnerability, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it.
I realized that at 46 years old, I was developing “frailty syndrome”, which is a viscious cycle:
Pain/injury –> loss of full mobility –> deconditioning & loss of muscle mass –> pain/injury
Additionally, I realized that for at least 3-4 years, around the time that my youngest child was too big to pick up regularly, that I had not lifted anything heavy with regularity as part of my daily activities.
Aha moments of clarity mobilize me into action. I headed to the gym for the first time in my life to see if they might help me with my everyday fitness. Only six weeks in and things are changing for me. It is a slow and steady road, and I am glad to be on it and taking charge of my health in a whole new way.
Lean Muscle Mass Can Benefit You
Consider your own trajectory. Do you experience chronic or sometimes acute pain? Are you prone to injury? Are you fit-but-fragile like I was, or maybe you just lack strength. Now consider again the list of benefits maintaining lean muscle mass offers your overall health and well-being and whether or not you are in need of any of those benefits. I encourage you to consider adding strength training into your wellness routine.
Wellness with Meghan Van Vleet ND in Boulder CO
If you need support with your health goals, give me a call: 720-340-0193
Grimbly G, Saltin B. The ageing muscle. Clin Physiol. 1983;3(3):209-218.
Institute of Medicine (US) Division of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. “Falls in Older Persons: Risk Factors and Prevention.” The Second Fifty Years: Promoting Health and Preventing Disability., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Jan. 1992, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK235613/.
López-Otín, Carlos, et al. “The Hallmarks of Aging.” Cell, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 6 June 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3836174/.
Moore, Tyna. “Muscle as Medicine: Balancing Health Through Strength Training” OANP 2019.