How muscle mass helps you fight off disease and sickness

You may have heard about the backlash against body mass index (BMI)…

BMI is a number calculated using your height and your weight. It’s used to gauge whether you’re overweight or obese… and as a result, whether you’re at risk for certain diseases. But here’s why a lot of people have a beef with BMI…

Muscle weighs more than fat. So, someone who’s super muscular, like say, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, might have a BMI that places him in the obese category. Using the BMI theory of health and disease, he’d be considered at risk for a number of serious diseases. And that’s where the BS behind BMI comes to light…

Because even though there’s evidence that high BMI increases the risk of certain diseases, there’s a paradox at play here. For a long time, doctors and researchers noticed that people with a high BMI also fare better when they’re hospitalized, going through cancer treatment or dealing with other serious health concerns. Why?

Because they have more muscle, and muscle mass makes a big difference in your immune response…

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Losing muscle mass puts your health (and life) at risk

Nutrition expert and researcher Carla Prado believes muscle mass could make all the difference when you’re dealing with a life-threatening infection or disease like cancer. Did you know, for example, that:

  • Losing 10 percent of your muscle mass decreases immunity and increases your risk of infection.
  • Losing 20 percent of your muscle mass slows your healing response and makes you feel weak.
  • Losing 30 percent of your muscle mass makes you too weak to sit.
  • Losing 40 percent of your muscle mass is often fatal.

The scary thing is, it doesn’t take much for muscle mass to take a dive… especially when you’re sick. An older person spending time in the hospital can lose over two pounds of muscle in just three days. Even a healthy adult loses five percent of their muscle mass after 10 days in the hospital. Someone in the Intensive Care Unit loses 18 percent of their muscle mass in 10 days.

Related: How resveratrol may help astronauts maintain muscle mass in space

Now, your body needs muscle for more reasons than just movement. It needs muscle to regulate hormones, perform metabolic functions and maintain organ function. So, losing muscle quickly creates a dangerous domino effect that makes your body unable to perform critical tasks for survival.

What does all this mean for you?

It means you should focus more on building muscle than lowering the number on the scale. Because (God forbid) you ever get a serious disease like cancer, the more muscle mass you start with, the better.

Build your health by building muscle

So, if you’re looking for ways to support your health and reduce your disease risk, step away from the scale. There are better ways to see where you stand than weight and BMI. Instead, put your muscles to the test. You can do that by:

  • Having your body composition analyzed
  • Testing your walking speed
  • Gauging your grip strength
  • Doing a timed push-up test

All these activities will give you a far better idea of your health than the number on the scale. You can also support better muscle health by following healthy lifestyle habits, like:

  • Eating healthy muscle-building proteins like grass-fed meats and dairy products, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
  • Practicing resistance training regularly. That could mean lifting weights, using weight machines, using resistance bands or doing bodyweight exercises like push-ups and squats.

The take-home message is: muscle matters. So, don’t let yourself get soft, or else you might get sick.

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  1. Nutrition expert finds muscle mass and diet play crucial role in fighting cancer — MedicalXpress
  2. Prevalence and clinical implications of sarcopenic obesity in patients with solid tumours of the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts: a population-based studyThe Lancet Oncology
  3. 5 Diet Changes You Need to Make to Build Muscle — Men’s Health
  4. How to build muscle with exercise — Medical News Today
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine,, and