Slim & Strong: Muscle as Your Weight Loss Ally

Slim & Strong: Muscle as Your Weight Loss Ally
Photo by julien Tromeur on Unsplash

We’ve all been there: standing in front of the mirror, making resolutions, setting goals to shed those extra pounds. It feels empowering, doesn’t it? To think that in just a few weeks or months, we could be looking at a new and improved version of ourselves. If you’re nodding in agreement, thinking that this is a surefire path to a healthier life, you might want to pump the brakes for a moment. Because a healthy weight loss isn’t just about watching the numbers on the scale go down (read: Looking Beyond Weight Scale: The Science of Body Composition, Water Dynamics, and Genuine Fitness Markers)—it’s about losing fat and preserving, or even gaining, muscle as known as body recomposition.

Regrettably, muscle has become a subject shrouded in myths, with many people immediately associating muscle gain with acquiring a bulky appearance. It’s no secret that societal pressures and beauty standards have conditioned many people, specifically most women, to prioritize slimness over strength. As a result, the primary goal often becomes weight loss at any cost, even if it means sacrificing muscle. And the very idea of ‘muscle gain’ becomes synonymous with unwanted bulkiness.

It’s time to debunk some myths and understand the actual science behind muscle, fat, and what it truly means to be healthy.

Benefits of Strong Muscles

  • Boosting Metabolic Rate

Building more muscle mass effectively turns up the dial on your body’s metabolic rate, specifically your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)1. Think of BMR as the energy, measured in calories, needed to keep the vital functions of your body running smoothly while at rest—it’s the fuel your body requires to keep your heart beating, lungs breathing, and other essential processes going, even when you’re just relaxing.

In simpler terms, a body with more muscle is like a car with a high-performance engine—it burns more fuel even when it’s idling. This means if you increase your muscle mass, your body will burn more calories at rest and you’ll need to consume more calories daily to maintain your current weight. This muscular “engine upgrade” is a helpful ally for those wanting to manage their weight and lead a more energetic, vibrant life!

  • Enhancing Physical Strength and Longevity

Focusing on increasing muscle mass is crucial as it directly corresponds to enhanced physical capabilities, like grip strength, which is integral for maintaining our body’s structure and facilitating vital movements. This becomes especially essential as we age, with the risk of conditions like sarcopenia, a degenerative loss of skeletal muscle mass, quality, and strength associated with aging, increasing2.

The emphasis on building stronger muscles is not just about aesthetics or athletic performance; it’s fundamentally intertwined with our longevity3. Strengthening our muscles can potentially mitigate the impacts of aging-related muscle deterioration, contributing to healthier and potentially longer lives. By prioritizing muscle health, we are essentially investing in our overall well-being and future quality of life.

  • Achieving a Toned Appearance

Muscle takes up less space in your body per kilo than fat. This means that even if you’re building muscle and shedding fat, your weight might remain relatively constant, yet you’ll appear leaner and more toned. Why? Because a kilogram of muscle, being denser and more compact, occupies less volume than a kilogram of fat. So, when setting weight loss goals, it’s crucial to shift the focus from merely losing pounds to optimizing body composition by retaining, or even gaining, muscle mass. This not only results in a more sculpted physique but also boosts metabolism, enhancing the body’s efficiency in burning calories, and brings about numerous health benefits.

  • Raising metabolic health

Individuals with greater muscle mass and higher muscle strength tend to have a lower risk of developing CVD and a lower risk of death related to such conditions. Digging deeper, muscular strength is found to have a positive association with higher insulin sensitivity, signaling a crucial link to metabolic health. This essentially means that people with more muscular strength are likely to have a better response to insulin, the hormone responsible for regulating blood sugar levels, thereby reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders4.

These findings underscore the pivotal role of maintaining muscle fitness, not only for metabolic well-being but also as a preventative strategy against life-threatening cardiovascular conditions, spotlighting the essentialness of incorporating strength training into our regular exercise regimen.

The Consequence of Starvation Mode on Muscle and Fat

Embarking on a diet program usually entails consuming fewer calories than one expends, which leads to the body shedding a mix of both muscle and fat. When caloric intake is below the level required to maintain basal metabolism— the minimum energy our bodies need at rest to perform essential functions like breathing and sustaining organ activity—our bodies enter a “starvation mode.” In this state, the body harnesses energy from stored carbs (glycogen), fat, and even protein from muscle5. This means our bodies not only burn fat but also consume muscle mass for fuel, a phenomenon that underscores the significance of balancing nutrient intake and maintaining muscle mass while aiming for weight loss.

Strategies for Fat Loss and Muscle Gain

Even though cutting calories and some workout routines might lead to losing a bit of muscle, you can actually shed fat and build muscle simultaneously, giving your body a better boost in the process

  • Exercise

Exercise isn’t just about managing weight; it’s a crucial component for maintaining and enhancing skeletal muscle mass, strength, and composition6. There are principally two types of exercise: resistance (or strength) exercises and aerobic (or endurance) exercises.

Resistance exercises are mainly anaerobic, focusing on boosting muscle growth and development, making them an ideal choice for those looking to gain muscle mass, like bodybuilders. They emphasize promoting skeletal muscle mass (SMM) growth and are instrumental in regimes where weight gain is the goal. Beyond just muscle gain, resistance exercises are pivotal in weight management strategies, helping in the preservation of lean mass and skeletal muscle mass.

In contrast, aerobic exercises are integral for those looking to shed fat, forming a central part of weight management interventions that target fat loss. Unlike resistance exercises, they are more focused on improving endurance and are less impactful on muscle growth7.

When resistance training is combined with a calorie deficit, it proves effective in reducing muscle mass loss—assessed by DXA—and in enhancing muscle strength, in comparison to approaches that focus solely on diet and behavior modifications. In essence, it provides a balanced approach for those aiming to lose weight, allowing for the maintenance of muscle mass while shedding unwanted fat8.

Both resistance and aerobic exercises have their unique roles in managing muscle mass and composition, serving different purposes in weight management and muscle development strategies. Whether the goal is to gain muscle or lose fat, incorporating the appropriate form of exercise is essential for achieving optimal results.

  • Prioritize protein intake

When it comes to maintaining muscle mass, protein is the golden ticket. Consuming a diet low in calories but rich in protein provides the essential building blocks our bodies need to construct muscle, particularly when managing weight through dietary energy restriction, as found in a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The ideal protein intake isn’t a one-size-fits-all number. The general recommendation is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day just to sustain muscle mass9. However, the need for protein escalates for those who are more physically active. Individuals engaged in moderate exercise should aim for 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram, while those involved in intense exercise may require up to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight10.

The potential benefits of high protein intake extend beyond muscle maintenance. Studies indicate that it can also be a potent ally in weight management due to its ability to suppress hunger and increase feelings of fullness. Moreover, dietary protein impacts energy intake, resting metabolic rate, thermogenesis, and even the body’s endocrine and gut hormone responses, suggesting its pivotal role in overall health11.

  • Enough sleep and recovery days

Engaging in regular workouts is essential, but it’s not just about burning calories or breaking a sweat. When you exercise, particularly when participating in resistance training or high-intensity workouts, your muscle fibers experience microscopic damage. This process, as highlighted in a study published by the National Institutes of Health, is crucial for muscle development and growth12. Following a workout, these slightly damaged muscle fibers require a healing period. During this time, the body works diligently to repair and rebuild the fibers, ultimately making them stronger and more resilient. This recovery phase is vital as it not only leads to muscle growth but also enhances overall exercise performance, enabling the body to handle more strenuous activities over time.

Quality sleep is another pivotal aspect of achieving optimal muscle growth and exercise performance. Adequate restful sleep is integral to maintaining balanced cortisol levels within the body. Cortisol is a hormone that plays a significant role in how the body manages stored carbohydrates and fats. When we get sufficient sleep, cortisol levels are regulated effectively, thus aiding in the proper utilization and storage of carbohydrates and preventing excessive fat accumulation.

A well-balanced routine encompassing regular exercise, proper muscle recovery, and adequate sleep is crucial for maximizing muscle growth and optimizing physical performance.

References

  1. Zurlo, F., Larson, K., Bogardus, C., & Ravussin, E. (1990). Skeletal muscle metabolism is a major determinant of resting energy expenditure. The Journal of clinical investigation86(5), 1423–1427. https://doi.org/10.1172/JCI114857 ↩︎
  2. Weiss, E. P., Jordan, R. C., Frese, E. M., Albert, S. G., & Villareal, D. T. (2017). Effects of Weight Loss on Lean Mass, Strength, Bone, and Aerobic Capacity. Medicine and science in sports and exercise49(1), 206–217. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000001074 ↩︎
  3. Metter, E. J., Talbot, L. A., Schrager, M., & Conwit, R. (2002). Skeletal muscle strength as a predictor of all-cause mortality in healthy men. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences57(10), B359–B365. https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/57.10.b359 ↩︎
  4. Stump, C. S., Henriksen, E. J., Wei, Y., & Sowers, J. R. (2006). The metabolic syndrome: role of skeletal muscle metabolism. Annals of medicine38(6), 389–402. https://doi.org/10.1080/07853890600888413 ↩︎
  5. Cava, E., Yeat, N. C., & Mittendorfer, B. (2017). Preserving Healthy Muscle during Weight Loss. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.)8(3), 511–519. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.116.014506 ↩︎
  6. McGlory, C., van Vliet, S., Stokes, T., Mittendorfer, B., & Phillips, S. M. (2019). The impact of exercise and nutrition on the regulation of skeletal muscle mass. The Journal of physiology597(5), 1251–1258. https://doi.org/10.1113/JP275443 ↩︎
  7. Ross, R., Dagnone, D., Jones, P. J., Smith, H., Paddags, A., Hudson, R., & Janssen, I. (2000). Reduction in obesity and related comorbid conditions after diet-induced weight loss or exercise-induced weight loss in men. A randomized, controlled trial. Annals of internal medicine133(2), 92–103. https://doi.org/10.7326/0003-4819-133-2-200007180-00008 ↩︎
  8. Figueroa, A., Arjmandi, B. H., Wong, A., Sanchez-Gonzalez, M. A., Simonavice, E., & Daggy, B. (2013). Effects of hypocaloric diet, low-intensity resistance exercise with slow movement, or both on aortic hemodynamics and muscle mass in obese postmenopausal women. Menopause (New York, N.Y.)20(9), 967–972. https://doi.org/10.1097/GME.0b013e3182831ee4 ↩︎
  9. McCarthy, D., & Berg, A. (2021). Weight Loss Strategies and the Risk of Skeletal Muscle Mass Loss. Nutrients13(7), 2473. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13072473 ↩︎
  10. Jäger, R., Kerksick, C. M., Campbell, B. I., Cribb, P. J., Wells, S. D., Skwiat, T. M., Purpura, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Ferrando, A. A., Arent, S. M., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Stout, J. R., Arciero, P. J., Ormsbee, M. J., Taylor, L. W., Wilborn, C. D., Kalman, D. S., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D. S., Hoffman, J. R., … Antonio, J. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition14, 20. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8 ↩︎
  11. Leidy, H. J., Clifton, P. M., Astrup, A., Wycherley, T. P., Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S., Luscombe-Marsh, N. D., Woods, S. C., & Mattes, R. D. (2015). The role of protein in weight loss and maintenance. The American journal of clinical nutrition101(6), 1320S–1329S. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.084038 ↩︎
  12. Tipton, K. D., Hamilton, D. L., & Gallagher, I. J. (2018). Assessing the Role of Muscle Protein Breakdown in Response to Nutrition and Exercise in Humans. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.)48(Suppl 1), 53–64. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0845-5 ↩︎

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