Bodybuilding has changed a lot during its short life, but the motivation behind it hasn’t. Bodybuilding is all about the gain train.
We lift to look good, to be strong, and because we like it - health is an afterthought.
But society has become increasingly health conscious. Within the past decade human lifespan and longevity have come to the forefront of health interest.
We’re even seeing this interest work it’s way out of research environments and into specific activities, sports, and realms of fitness. Even bodybuilding.
This integration of fitness and longevity has presented an interesting complication, the two pursuits seem to contradict each other.
It’s as if there’s a fork in the road with one way leading to optimal performance and the other to optimal longevity.
Does it have to be this way? Must we prioritize one over the other?
Regardless, you chose bodybuilding - meathead.
I’m totally with you. Muscles are legit, which is why I’m writing this article.
So let’s look at how bodybuilding, or muscle, affects your body, and attempt to answer whether or not the pursuit of gains can live in harmony with longevity (along with some random awesome photos of course).
The Physiology: What Happens to Your Body When You Lift, Bro?
First, What is Muscle?
Muscle is bands of fibrous tissues in the body that control movement, and for a long time this is all we understood it to do.
But within the last 20 years research has shown that muscle also functions as an endocrine system - it regulates the function of other cells and tissues by releasing hormones and myokines. (R)
Myokines are cytokines produced by the muscle. Cytokines are tiny proteins that send signals or commands to other cells around your body.
When you bodybuild / resistance train / weight lift you are telling your muscles to release even more of these signals.
What then is muscle signalling your body to do? And do we want more or less of it? Answering these questions will reveal the health benefits or consequences of lifting.
Muscle Sends Signals to Your Body to . . .
Boost Fat Oxidation
Muscle is the primary regulator of leanness.
Resistance training releases the myokine Interleukin (IL)-6, which increases fat oxidation within skeletal muscle via AMPK phosphorylation - it forces your body to burn fat for energy. (R)
Lifting also depletes your muscle glycogen stores and increases glucose uptake and glucose transporters so sugars are better utilized and less likely to be converted into fat. (R)
This restores insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism function leading to further reduction in fat mass over time. All of which lowers your chances of becoming obese and developing fat related diseases such as type 2 diabetes. (R, R)
You’re now better able to burn fat less likely to store it, can efficiently utilize energy because your metabolism has improved, and consequently have less inflammation, which brings me to my next point.
Lower Chronic Inflammation (The Bad Kid)
Chronic inflammation is systemic (all throughout your body) and raises your metabolic disease risk. (R)
Muscle plays a vital role in the fight against chronic inflammation by releasing IL-6, which is accelerated when you lift. IL-6 is especially unique because in addition to regulating cells and tissues, it appears to also regulate other cytokines.
In the presence of IL-6 inflammatory cytokines such as IL-1b and TNF-alpha decrease, and anti-inflammatory cytokines IL-10 and IL-1ra increase. A deadly combo for chronic inflammation.
Resistance training also causes acute inflammation via release of IL-8 and other cytokines that attract cells called neutrophils to the area for repair. (R)
This type of inflammation is isolated to specific areas and is good for your body.
Lastly, resistance training also lowers plasma levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammatory substance released by the liver that’s considered a reliable marker of disease risk.
Low inflammation makes you feel and perform better, and also protects your body against against oxidative stress, ultimately slowing the process of aging. (R)
Improve Brain Function
The dumb jock really is a myth. (R)
Improve Bone Density
Resistance training improves bone density, protecting against osteoporosis. (R)
Denser bones means less injury, which leads to healthier aging.
Telomeres are protective caps at the end of DNA strands that facilitate cell division, which is how your body replaces and repairs old or worn out cells. This is a basic function of life.
Each time a cell divides telomeres become shorter. When they get too short cells can no longer divide, this is called senescence, or cell death.
This process of telomere shortening is associated with aging, disease, cancer, and higher risk of death, so much so that telomeres have been likened to a bomb fuse. (R)
The good news is that there are ways to reverse the process and lengthen telomeres, resistance training is one of them.
Grow & Preserve Muscle
There’s some debate over the long term health effects, however, because although both hormones are necessary for preserving healthy bodily function into old age, they also seem to accelerate aging. (R)
Resistance training also releases other growth factors such as IL-15 that decreases protein degradation and mTOR - this is where the gains come from. (R)
The Paradox: Growth Simultaneously Slows and Accelerates Aging
We’ve learned that muscle, specifically strength, is good for maintaining mobility and avoiding injury as you age; that muscle mass keeps you lean; exercise lowers chronic inflammation; lifting improves brain function and bone density; and resistance training lengthens telomeres - all incredible benefits that are essential for healthy aging.
On the other hand, the very same pathways required for growth and these results also accelerate aging and increase your susceptibility to age related diseases.
The answer lies in alternating periods of growth with periods of rest and repair; anabolism with catabolism; creation with destruction.
Healthy aging demands both.
How to Bodybuild for Longevity, a Dual Sided Approach.
Step 1: Properly Manage Growth
Growth is great - as long as you do it right.
Performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), anabolic steroids, and exogenous hormones can down regulate your body’s natural hormone production over time.
Inhibiting your body’s ability to naturally perform necessary functions will damage your health and shorten your lifespan. (R)
Speaking of supplements, don’t overdo it. Taking 10 times the prescribed amount can lead to liver toxicity and over stimulation. It’s also best to cycle on and off them.
You want to be the strongest dude around, and definitely can’t be outdone by your workout buddy.
So you go too heavy too soon and perform reps with improper form putting excessive strain on your skeletal structure and tendons because your muscles aren’t yet developed enough to handle the load, and you get injured.
Injuries shorten life.
Check your ego. If you can’t lift it with perfect form, it’s too heavy.
Learn Proper Nutrition
Body builders and weight lifters tend to be more nutritionally aware than “cardio-ers”, but there are still a lot of misconceptions floating around.
For starters, if you’re fat you aren’t doing it right. Leanness matters.
Probably the biggest myth is that you need 1g of protein per pound of body weight. You don’t.
Studies have shown that there are no additional benefits for muscle development (protein synthesis) beyond 0.82 g of protein per pound of body weight, which is the number they fell on after adding two standard deviations to their results to guarantee no benefits were left out, which means 0.82 is significantly higher than what they found in the study.
On the other side you only need about 0.55 to perfectly preserve lean mass. So keep your protein intake between 0.55 and 0.82g per pound of body weight. (R)
More than that spikes mTOR and IGF-1 levels, which accelerates aging and is associated with age related diseases such as osteoporosis and dementia. (R)
Elevated mTOR and IGF-1 also suppress autophagy, your body’s own recycling system that is critical for optimal anti-aging. (R)
Beware of Overtraining
Training 6 days per week without proper recovery can lead to hyperthyroidism, high levels of cortisol, and adrenal stress that leads to extra fat storage, loss of energy, poor performance or plateaus, immune deficiencies, mood imbalances, and other side effects. (R)
How do you know if you’re overtraining? Maybe you’re struggling to get through a workout, or gaining fat despite increasing intensity, or your body just aches. (R)
If you’re training frequently you need to plan time for recovery. (R)
Additionally, studies continue to show that you may not have to lift as often as you think to improve your strength and make size gains. (R)
Balance to Your Routine
Try not to focus on muscle building at the expense of joint and tendon care, and cardio respiratory exercise. I know, cardio.
I’m not saying you have to jog every day, but try to incorporate at least on day of HIIT (sprints) with jump rope, hill sprints, cycle sprints, tabata - there’s lots of options. Besides HIIT is better for your heart than traditional cardio with the added benefit of accelerating fat oxidation.
And add two or three days of mobility training to your weekly routine - maintaining mobility is increasingly important as you age. (R)
Step 2: Rest & Repair
Your body has it’s own process process for this, it’s called autophagy.
It breaks down old and worn out parts within your cells and discards or reuses them, parts that are replaced through the growth processes above. (R)
Think of it as your own recycling program.
Boosting it slows aging. (R)
Additionally, autophagy improves muscle growth and performance. Any use of energy, especially during exercise, damages cell components such as mitochondria. These damaged parts build up over time. Autophagy goes in and clears the damage out. (R)
How can you boost autophagy?
One way is with calorie restriction, from a normal diet and not your bulking diet. Aim to restrict calories down to 40% to 60%, somewhere between 800 to 1,200 calories for a few days (3 to 5). (R)
Do this a few times per year. Once per month would be optimal for longevity, but once per quarter would also work just fine. (R)
The best way to boost autophagy, though, is by fasting. Fasting is the ultimate form of calorie restriction making it the ultimate tool in the longevity kit.
There are many variations of fasting, all of which stimulate autophagy and are beneficial for longevity.
Intermittent fasting is a protocol popularized by Martin Berkhan and has become fairly common in the bodybuilding community. (R)
Single day fasts also work great, although extended fasting still reigns supreme.
There’s also a new method out known fasting mimicking, which is essentially severe calorie restriction for a period of 5 days that has been shown to produce up to 90% of the benefits of pure fasting. (R, R)
In Closing, Be Consistent
Focus on building a lifestyle of continual improvement and sustainable activity. Never get comfortable in your routine. Never stop pursuing the gains.
None of this stuff works in isolation, and none of the benefits are permanent. (R)
But if you keep lifting you'll keep your muscle. And if you keep fasting you'll slow aging.
Consistently alternate periods of growth with periods of rest and repair, and you may just extend your healthy years beyond what you ever thought could be possible - like Mark, who's 63.