Muscle Mass, A New Vital Sign?

Your vital signs are all of the typical stats that they typically take on you when you go to the doctor’s office or the emergency room–typically your blood pressure, weight, and pulse. But some doctors are arguing that another important piece of information is missing from this picture–your muscle mass. Studies have found that muscle mass can be an important indicator of health, because having a higher muscle mass appears to correlate with several improved health outcomes. We’re going to look at how your muscle mass impacts your overall health, and why increasing it can help you stay fit, healthy and disease-free.

What Can Your Muscle Mass Tell Us About Your Health Outcomes? 

According to a review of the latest research, your muscle mass can tell us a lot. A review paper published in the Annals of Medicine called “Implications of low muscle mass across the continuum of care: a narrative review” looked at 140 recent studies in inpatient, outpatient and long-term care settings that occurred between 2016-2017. What they found is that folks with more muscle mass enjoy a variety of benefits when it comes to beating serious diseases:

  • A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that women with high muscle mass had a nearly 60 percent better chance of surviving breast cancer. Vertex Fitness participated in a research study with a doctor to determine the effect of strength training to alleviate breast cancer medication side effects.
  • Patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) with more muscle have a better chance of survival, and they tend to spend less time on the ventilator and less time in the ICU overall.
  • People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who have more muscle experience better respiratory outcomes and lower occurrence of osteopenia or osteoporosis.7,8
  • In the long-term care setting, a study found individuals with less muscle had more severe Alzheimer’s.

According to Carla Prado, Ph.D., R.D., associate professor at the University of Alberta and principal author of the paper, “Muscle mass should be looked at as a new vital sign. If healthcare professionals identify and treat low muscle mass, they can significantly improve their patients’ health outcomes.”

Where BMI Falls Short

It’s common for healthcare practitioners to measure and use your BMI, or Body Mass Index, as an indicator of your health rather than muscle mass. We see the same trend in the fitness industry–your weight is treated as more important than your strength. However, as we like to say at Vertex Fitness, your weight is simply a number that measures how strongly your body is affected by gravity. Your weight can tell you very little about your health, because your scale does not distinguish between pounds of body fat and pounds of muscle–not to mention water weight or undigested food or any of the other many factors that cause normal weight fluctuations throughout the day. BMI is a very simple calculation that looks at your weight as a factor of your height, so it provides more information than just your scale, but BMI still does not take muscle mass into account. Your weight is nowhere near the be-all, end-all of good health.

Rather than stressing about the number on the scale, it is a very good idea to improve your health by increasing your muscle mass.

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