7 Health Benefits of Gaining Muscle

7 Health Benefits of Gaining Muscle

Not everybody has the same reaction to noticing a new muscle pop up on their body. Some love it: “Great, I’m getting jacked!” Some are discouraged: “Oh no, I’m getting bulky.” But everyone should know that building muscle has its benefits, beyond looks and in spite of looks.

Here are seven ways your newfound muscle is a big plus, both for your health and your fitness goals.

Strength and muscle size go together

We’ve all met people who are stronger than they look, and vice versa. This has led to a myth that there are different “kinds” of muscle or strength, as if bodybuilders’ muscles are full of water or fat instead of contractile tissue. (I’m not sure exactly where this myth comes from, but it’s absolutely not true. Muscle is muscle.) 

Think of it this way: The bigger the muscle, the harder it can contract. But what you do with that muscle is a matter of skill. Gymnasts are strong, but not every strong person can do a backflip. Boxers are strong, but not every strong person will be able to deliver a knockout punch. 

If you train to build muscle size, you will end up increasing your strength. And if you train to build strength, chances are you will end up increasing your muscle size. That doesn’t mean you have to become huge if you don’t want to be; your diet is the main thing that determines whether you look “bulky” or not. But it’s reasonable to expect at least a little bit of muscle gain anytime you’re challenging your body to get stronger and fitter.

Muscle burns more calories

Muscle’s effect on our metabolism is one of the most frequently-cited benefits of gaining muscle mass, and honestly, I think it’s one of the least important. But let’s dive in, because I know you’re wondering about it.

Yes, the more muscle you have on your body, the more calories you burn, even at rest. Muscle is a metabolically “expensive” tissue, using a lot of your food as fuel, which means that you can eat more food, and thus get more vitamins, protein, fiber, and other useful nutrients. The more you burn, the better you can eat.

Every pound of muscle you gain will burn an extra 10 or so calories each day—so if you gain 10 pounds of muscle over the course of a few years’ strength training, you’re burning an extra 100 calories each day. This may not make a huge contribution to your daily calorie burn, but it’s something. What’s less appreciated is that the more muscle you have, the more likely you are to take on harder workouts, thus burning even more calories. 

I burn about 500 more calories each day now than I did years ago, when I was sedentary, and I certainly haven’t gained 50 pounds of muscle. But the more muscle you have, the more work you can do, and that snowballs. Remember, exercise is good for your health, so the more of it your body can handle, the healthier your heart and your metabolism can become.

Muscle benefits your health even if you don’t lose weight

Losing weight is often said to benefit our health, especially for people who have diabetes, other health conditions, and/or a high BMI. Losing weight can be tough, though, and gaining muscle can help those same health outcomes whether you end up losing weight or not. 

For example, this study found that having more muscle mass is associated with lower mortality rates, lower body fat, and a lower likelihood of having diabetes. People with high BMIs and high muscle mass were, in this study, healthier than people who had similarly high BMIs but low muscle mass. 

So even if gaining muscle doesn’t come with reduced body fat, it’s still helping you to be healthier. The researchers also speculate that some of the health outcomes we associate with high body fat may actually have more to do with low muscle mass.

Muscle keeps us in better shape as we age

It’s dangerous to be weak and frail as you age. An extreme loss of muscle mass is called sarcopenia, and it’s a known factor in all kinds of things you want to avoid. The less muscle mass you have, the greater your risk of falls, fractures, being unable to live independently, and generally poorer health. Older adults with less muscle are more likely to die when they have conditions like kidney disease and heart failure, and they may have a harder time withstanding treatments like chemotherapy

This isn’t just an issue for the grey-haired crowd: We lose 3-8% of our muscle every decade starting around age 30, if we don’t train to keep it. The rate of loss typically speeds up after age 60—but, again, people who strength train tend to hang onto their muscle. You might even build more than you had in your youth. 

Even if you haven’t hit age 30, think of yourself as putting muscle in the bank that you can use later. Somebody who is strong at age 25 is building the muscle (and the habits that keep them exercising!) that will keep them from being frail at age 75.

Strength training improves bone density

Besides sarcopenia, osteoporosis (a loss of bone mineral density) also contributes to the risk of devastating fractures and to a loss of independence, especially as we age. Muscle loss and bone density loss have been referred to as “musculoskeletal aging,” and it’s at least partially preventable with strength training. 

Bone grows stronger when you put stress on it, which is why “weight bearing” activities are commonly recommended for people at risk of osteoporosis. That doesn’t refer specifically to weight training, but rather to activities where you’re supporting your own weight. Walking, running, and jumping are weight bearing. Swimming is not.

But weight training does also improve bone density. Unless you’re great at walking or even jumping on your hands (which, I must note, requires a lot of strength and muscle), a good way to get healthy stress on the bones of your upper body is to do plenty of resistance training. That could include training with barbells, dumbbells, resistance machines, or other tools. 

Strong muscles may prevent injury

Injury prevention is a big and nebulous topic, so it’s hard to point at specific evidence that strength training in general reduces injuries in general. But ask any good coach, or any good physical therapist, and they’ll tell you that they encourage their players and patients to build strength to prevent injuries and to recover from them when they happen. 

Strength training gives you stronger muscles, bones, and connective tissue like tendons. In a sports context, stronger athletes seem to be more resistant to injury. And even in everyday life—let’s say a person who might slip and fall—being strong and agile makes it easier to avoid unexpected obstacles. You may also have an easier time catching yourself when you begin to fall. 

There’s also evidence that exercise, including strength training, is a useful tool in managing back pain, arthritis, and other conditions. 

Muscle makes you better at running, yoga, and other activities

Maybe you’re cool with exercise, but still a bit skeptical of the benefits of strength training specifically. You just want to run the trails, take a barre class, maybe do some yoga. Well, muscle helps with those things, too. 

If you’re a runner, for example, strength training helps to prevent injuries (including those nagging “overuse” injuries like shin splints and achy knees). More muscle in your legs also means a better ability to run up the hills of those trails and dodge rocks and tree roots on the way down. Stronger runners tend to be better runners.

Or let’s say you’re more into yoga. More strength and muscle will help you to be able to do more advanced poses, to do the medium-difficulty ones more confidently, and to do the easy ones with true ease. Or to put it another way: nobody ever thinks, in the middle of a yoga class, “I wish I had less core strength.” 

You get the idea. Rock climbing is more fun when you’ve got more upper body muscle. Cycling is more fun when you have powerful legs. Even outside the formal sports world, muscle helps you to carry mulch in your garden, to load your suitcase overhead without endangering your fellow airplane passengers, to help a friend move without spending the next two days on the couch popping Advil. So when you notice your body gaining a little bit of muscle, just think of all the opportunities it opens for you—not just how it looks.

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