Increased Muscle Strength Leads to Better Health
Can you improve health by increasing muscle strength or size?
Emerging clinical studies suggest that, yes, you can.
Loss of muscle mass is one of the inevitable processes of aging, a process that begins in our 40s, only to accelerate over the years.
Everyone already recognizes the extremes of lost muscle: the hunched-over elderly man or woman, weakened by advanced muscle loss leading to poor strength, slow movement, and shrinking height due to bone loss (osteoporosis). Authorities call exaggerated cases of muscle loss "sarcopenia." Sarcopenia is one of the fundamental ingredients underlying the emerging medical concept of frailty, defined as exhaustion, muscle weakness, slow walking speed, and low quantity of physical activity.
Beneath the surface of muscle loss are metabolic derangements: low metabolic rate, abnormal insulin responses and potential for diabetes, higher risk for heart disease, higher mortality rate.
In many instances, muscle loss is a preventable condition. The most direct means to reverse or slow muscle loss is to incorporate weight-bearing exercise, especially strength training, into lifestyle practices. Walking or biking-non-weight bearing, non-resistance exercises-while good for cardiovascular health, may not be enough to slow muscle loss. Strength training or other muscle-stimulating or resistance activities are necessary.
Adding 20 minutes of strength training twice per week is sufficient to begin to stop muscle loss, even see improvements in muscle strength and size. Benefits can be accelerated with targeted use of nutritional supplements designed to accelerate and amplify muscle growth. Among the choices in muscle-building nutritional supplements, creatine is king. Since its introduction in 1994, creatine has exploded in use among bodybuilders and athletes interested in gaining muscle mass and strength.
Even if you're not interested in building big muscles like a bodybuilder, there are health benefits to increasing muscle mass, including increased bone density, better balance, fewer injuries, better insulin responses, lower blood sugar, less long-term likelihood of frailty.
Creatine is not just for weight lifters. A study of creatine supplementation in men, average age 70 years, demonstrated that, when creatine was combined with strength training, it increased muscle mass 250% better than placebo (7.26 lb vs 2.86 lb), along with improved leg strength and endurance. Benefits are maintained after stopping creatine supplementation.
Similar results were observed in another study that included women (age 65 and older), with outcomes in females comparable to males. In a study of people with Parkinson's disease, a neurologic disease that leads to progressive physical impairment, creatine supplementation led to measurable improvements in muscle strength, compared to no effect from placebo.
The most popular form of creatine is the monohydrate, generally taken as a "loading" phase of 15-20 grams per day (generally split into 3-4 doses of 5 grams) for 5-7 days, followed by weeks to months of 2-5 grams per day. An alternative form, polyethylene glycosylated creatine (PEG-creatine) provides similar effects at one-fourth to one-half the dose of creatine, i.e., 1.25-2.5 grams per day. Athletes taking creatine for up to 21 months have shown no adverse effects on kidney function, lipid (cholesterol) values, or other basic health measures.
Can bigger, stronger muscles translate into reduced risk for heart attack and other forms of cardiovascular disease? Recent research points towards the inflammation-suppressing effects of maintaining muscle mass that may underlie reduced cardiovascular risk. Several studies also suggest that improved glucose metabolism follows increased muscle mass. The research documenting this relationship is just getting underway. Given the power of this strategy, there will surely be plenty more to come.