LONDON — The stereotype of the muscle-minded meathead spending hours each day in the weight room has persisted for decades. More recently, the era of selfies, Instagram, and fitness influencers has only strengthened the prevailing belief that many frequent gym-goers are only interested in improving their looks. Now, a new set of research finds all that time spent pumping iron may have a beneficial effect on heart health later in life, particularly among men who keep up their weight lifting regiment well into middle age.
According to the new study, the amount of muscle mass a healthy man has in his 40s and 50s is associated with his long-term risk of developing heart disease. Thus, maintaining muscle volume into middle age may be a sufficient strategy for reducing one’s chances of experiencing a heart attack of stroke.
Everyone’s muscle mass starts to slowly erode around their mid 30s. On average, an individual will lose about 3% of muscle mass each subsequent decade. Our muscles are incredibly important parts of our bodies, and loss of muscle mass has long been associated with a number of health problems, including an overall higher likelihood of death. Furthermore, while prior research had already concluded that muscle mass was linked to heart attack and stroke risk, those studies had primarily focused on people with pre-existing heart problems.
So, for this study, the research team wanted to investigate how muscle mass in middle age influenced cardiovascular disease risk in generally healthy people. To accomplish this, they tracked 2,020 people with no heart issues (both men and women) over a period of 10 years and recorded any cardiovascular disease diagnoses among the group. Of the 2,020 participants, 1,019 were at least 45 years old when the observation period began in 2001-2002.
Initially, each participant provided researchers with individual lifestyle information, including their typical exercise routine and dietary habits. Circulating blood fat levels and inflammation markers were also collected, as well as overall blood pressure and body mass. Additionally, each person’s skeletal muscle mass was estimated.
Over the course of the 10-year period, 272 cases of both fatal and non-fatal heart problems occurred among the 1,019 middle aged participants. Male participants were found to be four times more likely than females to develop heart issues, and muscle mass was associated with cardiovascular disease risk.
The third of participants with the highest muscle volume experienced the fewest instances of heart problems. Statistically, compared to those with the lowest levels of muscle mass, participants with the highest muscle volumes were 81% less likely to have a heart attack or stroke. Moreover, participants with more muscle mass also enjoyed fewer reports of high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes.
For what it’s worth, study subjects within this high muscle mass group tended to be male, on the younger side of their middle aged years, and smokers. Additionally, they were more physically active, enjoyed a higher income and level of education, and usually stuck to a Mediterranean-style diet.
Even after performing a more thorough analysis that accounted for differences in diet, income, education, and established risk factors such as diabetes, muscle volume was still significantly linked to lower cardiovascular disease risk among male participants over the age of 45.
The research team theorize that the gender disparity in their findings can be partially attributed to higher overall muscle volume in men, and hormonal differences in how men and women age over the decades.
Ultimately, this study was observational, meaning it can not point to a cause behind its findings. However, the results “point to the importance of skeletal muscle mass preservation in relation to cardiovascular disease risk,” the study reads.
As far as how to preserve muscle mass well into adulthood and old age, researchers recommend regular weight resistance training and a diet high in protein.
The study is published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.