We’ve long been accustomed to thinking that the body mass index (BMI, the ratio between your weight and height) is a good predictor of health and lifespan. Although this association was both theoretically and empirically invalidated time and again, the industry behind it continues to pray on innocent customers. My purpose in this article, as a coach with over two decades’ worth of experience in training and nutrition, is to highlight the way in which muscle mass is a much better indicator of longevity and good health.

Consider the following scenario; a doctor talks about a health topic such as the BMI as an indicator of good health. The following day, morning show TV hosts echo this idea, at the same time competing with other networks over who approaches the topic in the most creative manner. Talk-shows frequently invite a trainer to agree with their view of BMI – likely someone new to the trade since the value itself defies all common sense.

Then, the morning programme proceeds to offer viewers quick tips on what they can do to get on the fast track to weight loss and, by extension, good health. But none of this actually works to the benefit of the viewer. You won’t hear any talk of what foods to eat to optimise hormones. For example, even something as simple as eating a handful of Brazil nuts daily can supply your body with an amazing amount of selenium which has been shown to influence testosterone production (1).

BMI is not the whole truth

In the timespan of less than half an hour, there’s a good chance one such talk show will convince you that your weight is negatively associated with your health, i.e. that the heavier you get, the unhealthier you become. Because we also associate good health with good looks, you’re probably thinking that the best thing for you to do is to lose some weight. The best case scenario is that you then try to cut on refined carbs and added sugars. The worst case, which also happens to be the most frequent one, you’ll be looking for a fast way to shed some pounds. I’ve known many people who went down this path and put their health at great risk by trying a fad diet.

Without a doubt, the BMI is not the whole truth, rather a very narrow perspective of the whole truth and much bigger picture. The Body Mass Index does not account for body composition. It doesn’t consider whether it measures muscle, fat, water, or bone tissue etc, and it certainly does not take a doctor to demonstrate that BMI is a crude measurement of health. Mathematician Keith Devlin proved as much in 2009 (2). Instead, a much more accurate indicator for your health is your body’s percent of muscle mass, while visceral fat (not the subcutaneous one that parks itself on your bum and love handles, but the one that pads the spaces between our organs) is strongly correlated with cardiovascular diseases (3), diabetes, gallbladder surgery and even breast cancer (4). For your own health, you should never consider fast ways to lose weight, but sustainable ways to get rid of fat, particularly visceral fat, and to build muscle.

Muscle protects you from disease

Long before Devlin’s post on BMI, medical researchers were questioning, some knowingly, others not so much, the assumptions we make about weight loss, particularly since a lot of thin people also have a variety of health problems. A 2006 review of available medical literature pointed out that “depletion of muscle mass is incompatible with life.” Even in patients seriously ill with AIDS and cancer, there is a strong association between reduction of muscle mass and length of survival (5). The mechanism is quite simple. When we suffer from critical illness, our body’s physiological response is to accelerate the synthesis of protein so that we can recover at a molecular level. For protein synthesis to occur, it is proven that the body requires all 9 essential amino acids (6), another reason why diet is so important to maintain our health.

When we heal from chronic illness, studies have shown that we need anywhere from two to four times our normal amount of protein intake for tissue regeneration. Eating one’s full is rarely possible in conditions of critical illness, so muscle tissue steps up and provides the necessary amino acids for the recovery process. For me, it was nothing short of fascinating to find out just how adaptive we are as a species. Muscle mass is not only vital to the way in which our bodies respond to the stressed state, but also instrumental to our ability to recover from critical illness or severe trauma.

Another influential trial found that the ratio of muscle mass to visceral fat was a significant predictor of metabolic syndrome in young, university students. Also known as dysmetabolic syndrome or syndrome X, this condition actually refers to a cluster of diseases that disturb our normal metabolism, such as insulin resistance, high blood pressure, increased risk of blood clotting, and abnormal cholesterol levels. The study evaluated close to 1,500 college students starting from the premise that muscle mass has been increasingly associated with preventing chronic disease in adult populations (7).

They focused on early adulthood because it is the most appropriate time to intervene, given that both strength and mass tend to progressively decrease after the age of 20 in conditions of no activity. Not surprisingly, their findings showed that increased muscle mass, as well as lower percentages of visceral fat were associated with better protection against obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, as well as hormonal and metabolic decline. These findings have been corroborated time and again (8).

The importance of muscle mass in old age

Just as sarcopenia, the loss of skeletal muscle mass strength and quality in old age, was found to be a widespread issue that severely impacted one’s length of life, research on the impact of muscle mass began to focus on how this specific type of tissue benefits us. Aside from its central role in maintaining appropriate metabolic function, muscle mass successfully enables us to perform activities of daily living in old age. With appropriate nutrition and physical activity, we can maintain our muscle mass within normal parameters and significantly increase our quality of life as we get older. In turn, our muscles will help prevent a host of endocrine diseases to which we become more susceptible to in old age, such as diabetes, hypogonadism, hyperthyroidism, osteoporosis, hypercortisolism, and many others.

Research from UCLA also demonstrated that the more muscle mass you have in old age, the less likely you are to die prematurely (9), which adds to the growing volume of evidence that body composition, and not BMI, is a better predictor of all-cause mortality. More importantly, with better muscles, we’ll be less prone to falls since muscle strength impacts both static and dynamic balance. It’s a harmonious symbiotic relationship – you take care of lean tissue and it takes care of you.

With an appropriate physical activity programme, you can easily reach a healthy body composition by growing your muscle mass. In this discussion, it is important to remember that muscle helps you lose fat, while also protecting you against obesity. I advise my clients to first aim for lower-end moderate body fat, 23-24% for women and around 15% for men, according to the latest body composition benchmarks for health (10).

What to do to grow and maintain your muscle mass

By far, the fastest way to gain mass is to do strength training. A big problem that I often come across is that, instead of thinking that growing one’s muscle mass actually means acquiring a lean, slender, and attractive body frame at the expense of excess fat, most people associate it with bulking up. Just like they used to do with BMI and health. A good deal of clients and colleagues I’ve come in contact with, more women than men, reject the idea of growing their muscle mass precisely because of this.

What few of us realize is that “mass” is also a trite expression that the nutrition industry tends to overuse. The business invariably associates muscle mass with professional athletes, advanced bodybuilders, and contenders for the Mr. Olympia contest. In order to achieve a bulky physique, you need to lift “big boy” weights, as we call them. Moreover, you have to spend a great many years lifting to become massive. There’s literally nothing to be afraid of with casual strength training.

Nutrition is paramount to a lean physique

Just as important for carving your body into a healthier version of yourself is nutrition. Aside from replacing refined carbohydrates and added sugars with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, I advise people to pay attention to their macronutrients. Protein is obviously important for building muscle, which is why you need to make sure you’re eating enough healthy protein to enable your body to produce lean tissue. The exact amount of protein tends to vary according to your weight and training objectives.

Supplementing can help a great deal towards athletic performance and muscle building, but you need to make sure you get your products from a trusted source. As someone who works in the industry, I’m intimately familiar with the difference between products made for quality and those meant for profit. Furthermore, adequate creatine supplementation (11) is a healthy way to boost your energy levels, strength, as well as recovery. Without diving too deep into the mechanics, this particular compound is nothing more than an amino-acid that helps your muscle cells regenerate energy, thereby enabling you to train better and more efficiently.

The takeaway

We need to undo years of believing that the body mass index and weight are the obstacles to a healthy body and a healthy life. Instead, what we must focus on is body composition and, more specifically, our muscle mass.

From helping us prevent diseases to aiding in the recovery from critical illnesses and even improving our quality of life as we get older, muscle mass must become a central aspect of our quest for wellness.


1. 19 Breakthrough Ways Proven To Increase Testosterone (NATURALLY)

2. Do You Believe in Fairies, Unicorns, or the BMI?

3. Association of Changes in Abdominal Fat and Cardiovascular Risk Factors

4. Abdominal fat and what to do about it

5. The underappreciated role of muscle in health and disease

6. What Are Amino Acid Supplements? (AND WHY YOU NEED TO USE THEM)

7. Muscle mass to visceral fat ratio is an important predictor of the metabolic syndrome in college students

8. Effects of Muscular Strength on Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Prognosis

9. Older adults: Build muscle and you'll live longer

10. Want to Lose Weight? Pay Attention to Body Composition

11. Creatine Loading: A Definitive Guide (LATEST RESEARCH 2019)

Author's Bio: 

professional digital marketer