More muscle is better for blood sugars and healthy longevity

At the beginning of each year, there is often an uptick in people joining the gym with the ambition to get healthier – and we’re not going to knock it. But are you doing the right form of exercise? If it’s all cardio and no muscle building then you need to rethink. Natalie explains why muscle mass is so important for our blood sugars and healthy ageing.

Muscle is not reserved for bodybuilders. We all need muscles to walk, balance, lift things, sit down, stand up, you name it. We would be immobile without them. 


Muscles even knock the skin off the top spot as the largest organ in the human body, so prioritising muscle maintenance and growth is a vital aspect of living a healthy life – including balancing your blood sugars and avoiding and reversing type 2 diabetes.


Muscle mass and blood sugars

Let’s recap – when you eat, your body breaks down carbohydrates into sugar (glucose) which enters your bloodstream. Insulin, a hormone produced by your pancreas, signals to your cells (we are made of trillions of cells) to absorb sugar for energy or storage, depending on what is required. This includes the cells in your muscles.


So the more muscle you have, the more cells you have available to absorb glucose from your bloodstream. Think of it like having more bags to hold your shopping – with more muscle mass, there are more places for glucose to go, which results in lowering the level of sugar in your blood.


Additionally, when you exercise, your muscles need extra energy, so they draw in more glucose from your bloodstream to fuel your workout. They may also take sugar from storage which results in fat loss. Having ample muscle mass means your body can efficiently use up sugar helping to maintain stable blood sugar levels during exercise. We also continue to use energy while resting – the body has to keep the heart pumping, lungs breathing and organs working so we use energy and burn calories even if we do nothing all day. More muscle mass results in an increased energy expenditure at rest – win win!


As a bonus, having more muscle mass is linked to better insulin sensitivity. This means your muscle cells are more responsive to insulin’s signal to take in sugar, reducing the need for your pancreas to produce excess insulin. This is great news for preventing insulin resistance, which is the precursor to type 2 diabetes, and in turn, it will lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. 


How do muscles help us live longer?

We’ll do anything to live longer, right? But the reality is, our life expectancy has been increasing in the UK but our healthy life expectancy has been decreasing.


According to the latest data from the ONS, the healthy life expectancy in the UK is estimated to be around 63.5 years for men and 64.8 years for women. So while people in the UK have a life expectancy of 79.3 years for men and 83.1 years for women, a shocking portion of those final years may be spent in poor health.


So how can having greater muscle mass help to not only support longevity but also the quality of life while we age?


Improved metabolism

Muscle burns more energy/calories compared to fat even at rest. This can help maintain a healthy weight and prevent obesity, which is a risk factor for various chronic diseases, including cancer.


Better mobility

Greater muscle mass is associated with better physical function and mobility, which are essential for maintaining independence and quality of life. As we age, the risk of sarcopenia (muscle wastage) increases, making maintaining strong muscles that support posture, balance, and overall movement, as well as reducing the risk of falls and injuries, vital.


Strong bones

Strength training not only builds muscle but also helps to strengthen bones. This is particularly important for preventing osteoporosis and reducing the risk of fractures, which become more common as people age and can result in limited mobility and physical decline. This is especially essential for women, as the drop in oestrogen during menopause increases our risk of osteoporosis.


Positive mental health

Regular physical activity, including strength training, has been shown to have positive effects on mental health. Exercise releases endorphins, which can improve mood, reduce stress, and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. It can also be a social activity which helps alleviate loneliness, one of the biggest contributors to all-cause mortality. 


Blood sugar regulation

As well as better blood sugar control, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and the comorbidities this condition causes – blindness, amputation, poor immunity, slow wound healing and twice as likely to have heart disease or a stroke.

Have I convinced you to grow your muscles yet?


How to improve muscle mass at any age

It’s never too late to grow muscle so if that’s what comes to your mind I encourage you to not let age be a restriction. However, no matter what age we start, getting professional support and guidance is important so that we perform exercises correctly and create a plan of action that suits our needs and current health status.


Weightlifting and strength/resistance training hold the top spot as the most effective way to build muscle. However, pilates, swimming, yoga and walking/hiking can also be beneficial for maintaining muscle strength and size.


Why not enquire at your local gym, leisure centre or spa facility, or ask a family member to join you in your venture as you navigate a new sport?


A few things to stay on top of to support muscle health and growth:

  1. Consistency – a little and often can go a long way.
  2. Protein intake – because muscles are made of protein we need to eat it to grow them.
  3. Vitamin D status – our uptake from the sun also declines as we age.
  4. Hydration – protein synthesis requires good levels of hydration.
  5. Good recovery and rest – because progression in anything in life also requires adequate rest.


The takeaway… Building muscle through activities like weightlifting or resistance training is about more than bodybuilding for big strong muscles. 


Incorporating regular strength-building exercises into your routine – along with a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle habits – can go a long way in improving your blood sugar control and healthy life expectancy as you age. 


The result = you get to live the life you deserve!

Ready to align your goals for later life with your actions?