For many people, health is a game of perception, not fact. And this limited perspective leads people down a beaten track when attempting to be healthier – that is, weight loss. Be it the narrow lens of society or just the way we see ourselves, we all believe that being thinner is being fitter.
But have you considered challenging this belief? Dieticians and trainers alike believe that this goal is somewhat misguided. To them, a significant chunk of fitness-oriented people are going about this the wrong way – targeting weight instead of building muscle. But what does this mean? What is muscle mass and why is it so important to have enough of it? And if we’re tackling issues with our health the wrong way, how do we get on the right track?
Wait before you weigh
While numerically the same weight, fat and muscle are two different things. Make no mistake; both are vital to the body. Muscles oxidize fat with exercise, they aid strength, mobility, and functioning – their built and maintenance is how a body retains its youth and vitality.
Fat is insulation around vital organs, a protective layer. However, more often than not, our bodies have more fat than what is good for us. And given human tendency, no health issue bothers us as much as extra fat on parts of our body where we believe none should exist.
The distinction is that the number on the scale ultimately doesn’t matter as much as the balance between muscle and fat in your body. Two people weighing 70 kgs, but one with high body fat versus one with high muscle mass appear different, are at different levels of fitness and health, despite their weight being identical. This knowledge can prove to be a game changer in people’s fitness journey if implemented correctly.
When people are under-muscled, their endeavors at losing fat don’t result in the shapely appearance they’re looking for. Why is that?
The crux of your appearance is your body composition, which is a measure of the percentage of fat, muscle, and bone in your body. Nuances like these often get lost in the weight loss mentality that so many get into when trying to get healthy. The scale cannot help you here. Instead, before adopting a diet plan off the cuff or hitting the gym without a plan, get a professional assessment of your body’s composition. Ideally, a healthy body is more muscle and less stored fat. When this stored adipose (fat) tissue exceeds a certain limit, you make your body vulnerable to a host of issues like diabetes and heart trouble.
Muscling through to longevity
Muscle loss is a silent epidemic, already a rolling stone by virtue of age and genetics, but exacerbated by lack of physical exercise, less movement, and gradual atrophy due to disuse.
There are ways to keep up your muscle mass while also targeting unwanted fat to give you the 360-degree health you desire:
1. Don’t limit or cut out any one food group (especially Protein)
Fad diets might work in a pinch, but their effect won’t last except for the damage they cause. Some diets may call to cut out all fat or carbs from your intake, but all it serves to do is weaken the body.
Moderation is the name of the game here. Consume the aforementioned food groups in the right proportions, enough carbs to give energy for daily activity, enough fat to provide insulation and protection, and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Proteins are indispensable to building lean muscle in your body.
You need at least 0.8 g of per kg weight per day, and up to 1.2 g of protein is better for those who are aging and trying to maintain muscle mass.
If you’re vegetarian, research into plant protein sources that you cannot skip out. Omnivorous diets should definitely have their fill of animal-based protein, which packs the nutritional punch without piling on the calories.
2. Women, focus on training your muscles!
Building muscle is every woman’s pet peeve. They assume that lifting a few weights will bulk them up or make them look mannish. Nothing could be further from the truth. Women do not have the same muscle bed as men, so it’s not possible to have an over-muscled or bulky look, even if you’re training with dedication.
Instead, focus on the actual reason you need to build muscle – to support your bones, keep you sprightly and mobile, and do most bodily functions well into the sunset years of your life.
3. Calorie deficit? Stay wary
If the amount of food or calories you consume just about breaks even with what you expend with physical exertion, you run the risk of losing muscle and even bone strength.
Timing your food can rescue you here. Consume some healthy sugars, like bananas or dates, for that energy spike for your workout and some protein and carbohydrates within 60 minutes after it to ensure muscle maintenance and even growth.
Humans are comfort creatures. Even if exercise is new to some of us lazy bones (you know who you are!), we soon get into a groove. Here, there may be a tendency to repeat some activities, favoring certain exercise combos and plateauing in progress by not upping the mantle.
Defeat this mindset by committing to change. Train weights some days, cardio on others. Don’t neglect any part of your body. If you can’t feel it pleasantly sore, then you haven’t paid enough attention, and it should make its way into your next workout.
Make your long life a good one
Physically inactive people can lose up to 5% of their muscle mass per decade after the age of 30. Even if you are physically active, you will experience some muscle loss.
After 40, your muscle mass will drop steadily each decade, going down by nearly 50% at the age of 80. This is why older people are prone to fractures and misalignments with minor falls; their body’s frame is no longer resilient as their bones and muscles have weakened with time. While this is an inevitable progression, we can slow this down with steady, regular exercise and muscle building.
Working on your muscles may not show those numbers dipping on the weighing scale. This may seem disheartening for people who step on their scale ten times a day. But, well, stay at ease!
If you’ve been working out diligently, ignore the scales for a bit and instead take visual cues from your body for your progress. When you have more energy, feel less lethargy, are generally more upbeat and active and seem to crave the endorphins that come from a good workout, you can bet that your work is paying off. Your body is quietly building muscle as it burns fat, so the numbers may look unchanged while your body undergoes a steady transformation. Ultimately, muscles burn more fat, so a positive feedback loop needs you to have a little patience but a lot of commitment.
Mind over body
Given the epidemic of diet fads we’re in, one knows that a weight loss obsession is not positive. There are sociocultural effects at play when a person doesn’t look perfect. Thus most people abhor the thought of gaining weight. However, you need to get in tune with your body and ask yourself – how do I feel? Do I feel strong? Do I feel able? Or do I feel weak and unsteady? Chances are that your body is already giving you the cues you need to exercise it the right way.
The other aspect is recognizing that not everyone is an expert. Weight loss and fitness advice can be found at every corner, from well-meaning relatives to online coaches with a quick buck on their mind. Once you’ve made your health a priority, seek a credible dietician or trainer to support you in building a body that upholds your goals and adventures in life beyond the fleeting thrill of appearance