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What Is Muscle Mass and Why Is it important for Your Health?

When you think of “muscle mass,” what comes to mind?

For some, the phrase conjures up the image of a bodybuilder or other professional athlete with bulging muscles everywhere. It’s true that muscle plays a big role in all sports, including bodybuilding. But there are a lot of misconceptions about what muscle tone is and the role it plays in the body. Not everyone fully understands its importance to the body’s overall health and wellness.

This article will shed some light on muscle mass, why it’s important for your body even if you aren’t an athlete, and how to build muscle mass and maintain it with your diet and resistance exercise.

What is muscle mass?

Broadly speaking, muscles are soft tissue in the body that contract and expand to generate force. The force generated by our muscles is used in almost every movement, from running up and down a field to turning your head to look in a different direction. Medical experts break down muscle tissue into three types: cardiac, smooth, and skeletal. Cardiac and smooth muscle tissue are found in your heart and other internal organs respectively. 

As the name implies, skeletal muscle tissue attaches to your bones with tendons. This group is what generates the power and motion to create all movement in the human body. When you read or hear about "building muscle" or "lean muscle," it's a reference to skeletal muscle mass. By putting your muscles under stress with resistance training, it's possible to increase both the size of your muscles (also called lean body mass) and the amount of force they are able to generate. There are specific muscles that correlate to strength in certain movements – for example, gluteus and hamstring muscles are prominently involved in generating force in the lower body, which is used in explosive leg motions like jumping and sprinting as well as everyday movements like walking up a flight of stairs.

What are the health benefits of muscle mass?

As mentioned previously, even if you don't need to run or jump for long periods of time, muscle mass is vital. Muscle mass plays an important role in many parts of our overall health, including:

Beyond these whole-body physiological benefits of muscle mass, the process by which we build muscle – resistance exercise – is also associated with improvements in mental health, which in turn affects our overall quality of life. 

As you can see, building and maintaining muscle mass is one of the most important things you can do for your health. But what does it actually take to build muscle and keep it?

How to build and maintain muscle mass

It may seem counterintuitive, but muscle tissue is built when our muscles are placed under intense strain through exercise. This strain causes microscopic tears in our muscle fibers – when they get repaired, new fibers are added, which over time will end up increasing the size and density of the entire muscle.

Building muscle doesn't require you to spend hours in the gym moving around heavy weights – unless you want to! According to medical authorities, you can receive the health benefits of strength training from a 15-20 minute session. The CDC suggests American adults engage in at least two strength training sessions per week, along with aerobic exercise that raises their heart rate.

It's also important to find a form of training that you enjoy. Many people associate the idea of resistance exercise with heavy barbells and dumbbells, and while these tools are valuable, they are certainly not the only way to promote muscle growth in the body. You can engage in basic body weight exercises like push ups, pull-ups, squats, and other movements that require little equipment. The key is to find a routine that you like and then stick to it consistently.

The role of diet in maintaining muscle mass

While strength training and exercise are important for building muscle, diet also plays a significant role – particularly the amount of protein you are able to consume each day. Protein intake has a direct correlation on your body's ability to build muscle, since it's the most important nutrient involved in creating healthy muscle tissue in the body. 

If muscle building is your priority, it's best to shoot for a minimum protein intake level of 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. However, this is just the floor – many bodybuilders and others who are serious about muscle growth eat high protein diets that include 100 grams of protein or more per day.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Sedentary Adult

Weight in pounds x 0.4* = grams of protein/day**

Adult Recreational Exerciser

Weight in pounds x 0.5 – 0.75 = grams of protein/day

Adult Competitive Athlete

Weight in pounds x 0.6 – 0.9 = grams of protein/day 

Adult Building Muscle Mass

Weight in pounds x 0.7 – 1.0 = grams of protein/day

Growing Teenage Athlete

Weight in pounds x 0.9 – 1.0 = grams of protein/day

*   Recommended protein amounts per pound adapted from Sports Nutrition: A Guide for the Professional Working with Active People; Editor Christine Rosenbloom, Ph.D., R.D., L.D.

You'll want to experiment with different levels to find an amount that works for you. Don't forget to also consider your protein levels in the context of overall calorie intake, which also has an important role in building muscle tissue and controlling your body mass index, or BMI. A normal range would see roughly 10 - 25% of your daily calorie intake from healthy protein sources, but those who are building muscle can sometimes obtain as much as 30% of their daily calories from proteins.

Like working out, eventually you'll find a cadence for diet and protein intake that helps you gain new muscle and prevents you from losing muscle as you age.

The last word on adding muscle mass

Neglecting your muscle mass can lead to increased risk of serious health conditions, from obesity to osteoporosis. Conversely, maintaining a sufficient level of muscle will improve many parts of your overall wellness, from your mental health to basic physical functions like walking and lifting.

Fortunately, the process of building and maintaining muscle isn't as complicated as some people think. If you can create a unique program of protein intake and resistance training for yourself, and stick to it for the long run, eventually you'll be able to build enough muscle to make your mind and body healthier.