Muscle Mass - Use It Or Lose It

One of my epiphany moments occurred as an 11 1/2-year-old, entering into the school sports hall an hour before it became a dojo. We were learning a hybrid Karate system Kyokushin and Shotokan interweaved. Not a bad system if you know your Karate.

Anyway, there was a load of old gym equipment, dumbbells and the like at the back of a storage room. As I was tinkering around on my own for an hour, I had a dig around and found what I reckon was a 12kg dumbbell. I managed 2 x bicep curls.

Went back 2 days later, managed 3… then a little bump was bicep…Eureka!…..something I could control and develop. Body mastery. You can control, improve and develop physically with the right tools at any age. I’ve even had 96-year-olds doing leg extensions and getting better at moving about, sitting down and standing up out of a chair.

Since then I don’t think I go a day without talking about the muscle system. Your muscle mass, much like your fat mass, is an active organ. Not only does it power our movement and sporting endeavours, it’s also a massive sugar reserve, playing a vital role in insulin sensitivity.

Furthermore, when we work out, I’d suggest you move most days like you are running from a murder you didn’t commit… make the muscle more insulin sensitive… this is a good thing.

When you work your muscle properly you’ll release a ton of growth factors that help heal the rest of the body, IGF1 and the like. It’s also a potent way to stimulate natural growth hormone release.

Here are some top things to remember about the importance of muscle, how much we lose over our lifetimes if you don’t use it, you literally lose it… "It’s all about your muscle mass" - ML


With life expectancy increasing, age-related diseases are all on the increase. One of these diseases is loss of muscle mass or sarcopenia. After age 30 we can lose 3-5% of our muscle mass each decade. Some people lose 30% of their muscle mass across a lifetime. This means in your 70s and 80s if you don’t protect your lean mass, you could have the muscles of a 10–12-year-old child in your later years. Some elderly folks have half their lean mass by the time they reach their 70s and 80s. Sarcopenia can also contribute to fractures from falling though a loss of bone mineral density.


Holding onto and even building some lost muscle as we age is essential to maintaining good levels of activity. A good muscle mass makes carrying out activities of everyday living with ease and grace as we grow older much more likely.

Muscle mass is a good indicator for a lower biological or metabolic age. So how do we hold onto such a valuable human resource…..?


The biggest single cause of muscle loss is likely to be lack of use. Whilst a small loss of muscle and strength is normal across a lifetime, by stimulating the muscle fibres through regular exercise, strength work and a bit of power work we can hold onto both mass and function as we age.

To do this you need to just challenge your muscles to do a bit more than they are used to via a variety of resistance based activities.


This is called progressive overload. Keeping a training diary ensures you can do a little more each session. One more rep. A bit more weight. A longer walk or a little less rest between sets all increase functional capacity or work capacity. Resistance training is key to protecting and off-setting age-related decline in muscle mass. Moderate loads are fine about 50-60% of your maximum lifts work really well for holding onto muscle mass. You can use your body weight as resistance at first.


Keeping a high muscle mass compared to fat mass is important. Excess fat can store in muscle tissue altering function and decreasing the exercise capacity of the muscle. You don’t need to be overweight for this to happen. A skinny fat body composition can result from low calorie and protein intake combined with a lack of sufficient activity. You can be normal weight but over fat for your weight and under muscled. Even if you are overweight if your muscle mass is high this will help metabolic capacity and aid with blood glucose disposal. Therefore, body composition and not just weight is so vital to measure regularly as part of an increased physical activity programme.


A low muscle mass can also contribute to poor blood glucose control as the muscle mass acts as a sugar reserve and buffer. The more muscle you have the more glucose you can dispose of into the muscle from the release of insulin. This can reduce the negative impact of high blood glucose levels on other tissues and organs and decrease the negative effects of poor blood glucose control and pre-diabetes.

Additionally, a pre-diabetic state can make the retention of muscle mass harder. As insulin resistance and other mechanisms induce a catabolic state. By stimulating and building muscle we can help support this negative loop and potentially restore normal function.


As we age our ability to digest and absorb protein is diminished, the protein rebuilding enzymes also need more stimulus. We can support this by eating higher volumes of protein after exercise called protein pulses. We might in this instance look for 25-50% of our daily intake in 1 hit to push the body into an anabolic or rebuilding state.


Inflammation can hinder muscle protein synthesis. Decreasing inflammation through the use of omega 3 rich foods and spice extracts such as turmeric has been shown to increase MPS at the time of training. Polyphenols the wonderful compounds derived from the vegetables, herb and spice kingdom further provide another mechanism by which we can keep optimal muscle mass and function.


The main reason for muscle loss as we age is lack of use. Hormonal changes can also contribute including lowered testosterone and growth hormone release. Getting proper deep sleep will help off-set these declines somewhat. Lifting weights, eating enough protein, and following an anti-inflammatory diet as closely as possible should also aid muscle mass retention.



Creatine is a well-studied, if not the best studied of all sports supplements. It has an important role to play in protecting muscle mass and may even help with cognitive function decline as we age. As a cheap and widely available addition to your daily smoothie it’s an easy way to help preserve lean mass and muscle function as we age.



Making sure you have enough vitamin D can also help protect muscle function, normal testosterone function, immune and inflammation systems also benefit greatly from adequate vitamin D status.



So, we can see why muscle mass retention is vital to health and keeping functional capacity as we age. The old adage “use it or lose it” is highly pertinent to preserving your lean mass. Exercising in a progressive manner using resistance training puts in the process the cascade of events that can rebuild and repair your muscle tissue. 


Provided you supply the building blocks (protein) in ‘pulses’ combined with lowering inflammation via eating plenty of fish and spice-rich dishes you should be able to offset much of the general decline the general population suffers from. It’s not an infrequent thing for me to observe clients in their 60s and 70s with a similar functional capacity to when they were in their 30s and 40s. 

Tags: muscle