The Role of Lean Muscle Mass and Organ Reserve in Aging

There’s been a lot in the news lately about the question of longevity. This past week an article discussed the role of exercise in “biological aging,” the relative age of a person based on biomarkers (determined by telomere length in this study), rather than simple chronology.

To add to this discussion, I want to offer up a medically accepted dimension of biological aging that hasn’t gotten as much press lately. Lean muscle mass in happy tandem with organ reserve are two defining characteristics of both good health and longevity.

Have you ever heard someone say that a person died of “old age” or “natural causes”? Essentially, the person died as a result of the logical end of the aging process, the diminishment of organ reserve and corresponding muscle mass that supported his/her physical functioning.

Let’s look closer.

First, we’re talking skeletal muscle mass here, the stuff we use or lose with age. We associate muscle mass with strength and functionality, but muscle also provides metabolic reserve. Muscle produces proteins and metabolites in response to physical trauma. This response is essential to the body’s efforts to achieve recovery and resume homeostasis. With the loss of muscle mass, we lose this metabolic reservoir.

Organ reserve refers to the functional capacity of our organs to support life. When we’re young, our organs have many times the capacity that it takes to simply function. Factors that stress those organs, like illness, injury and toxicity we encounter in our environments (pesticides, etc.), test the organs, but because they have substantial reserve, don’t tax their limits. As we age, this reserve diminishes, and the organs become truly stressed by these same factors. We simply don’t bounce back the way we used to.

Now, the interesting thing is that lean muscle mass and organ reserve have a convenient correlation. Skeletal muscle mass and organ reserve, unless serious disease or trauma targets one or the other, generally tend to correspond throughout life.

The diminishment of organ reserve and lean muscle mass is somewhat genetically influenced, but as we say here at MDA time and again, the expression of your genes depends on the interaction between your genetic blueprint and your personal environment and lifestyle. This means that our efforts throughout life to build and maintain muscle mass tend to improve or retain not just muscle mass but the function of other tissue as well, including the function of vital organs like the heart, lungs, kidneys and liver. And vice-versa. It’s a widely accepted assertion that 75 percent of our health and life expectancy after age 40 is determined by environmental factors, including the impact of our daily lifestyle choices. Now there’s a reason to get off the couch.

So, what can you do to retain and even build lean muscle mass throughout your life and maintain the vitality of your organs? Let’s explore.

Prevent Inflammation
You guessed it: anti-inflammatory diet. Bad carbs! Down trans fats! Those trans fat encourage oxidative stress throughout the body. Grains and sugars not only cause inflammation, which perpetually taxes your organs, they throw off your hormone levels. And, yup, optimum hormone levels are key to 1) maintaining and building lean muscle mass and 2) supporting the functional health of the body’s organs. There’s just no getting around it. What’s healthy/unhealthy for one part of the body will be the same for the whole body. It’s the beauty of the design, I say. And it holds us accountable – without exception.

What would an MDA entry be without the requisite push for veggies, veggies, veggies. We’ll stump for fruits as well. Anti-oxidants and nutrients galore now will mean compound interest later. Every cell in your body, not to mention your older, future self, will thank you for the investment.

Get Protein!
A study at University of Texas at Galveston had us all cheering over its findings that older people have the same capacity as their younger counterparts for converting protein-rich food into muscle. Older men and women in this country, countless nutrition studies suggest, eat less protein than the average person. At the time of life when protein plays a more essential role than ever, older men and women typically reduce their protein intake. Take this as the perfect incentive to belly up to the barbeque!

Take Omega-3 Supplements (from fish oil)
While we’re on the subject of protein, omega-3s from fish oil in particular can enhance the above conversion process of food protein to muscle protein. This finding is good news for young and old alike.

Furthermore, omega-3s reduce inflammation and thin the blood, which puts less stress on the heart and other organs. The less stress we put on the organs, the longer they are able to maintain their vitality.

Limit Exposure to Toxins
You’ve heard me spout off about the importance of organic foods, and there’s good reason (and science) behind these concerns. Yet I also understand (in part through the great comments left by you, our MDA community) that organics aren’t always available and, if they are, are often cost-prohibitive. If you’re able to do organics, go for it. But rest assured that even if you can’t, a healthy produce-rich diet has plenty of protective factors of its own.

Additionally, toxins in food are only a small part of the picture. Give you liver, among other organs, a break and take the time to use protective gear when working on the house or when dealing with toxins in the workplace. Look for small ways to limit unnecessary exposure to chemicals in your day to day life (e.g. install a water filter, etc.).

Exercise-Moderately, Please!
We can’t possibly say this enough: we’re talking about lots of moderate activity coupled with short spurts of high energy output, anaerobic activity. (See my entries on sprints for some ideas.) Nothing beats weight-bearing anaerobic activity for building muscle mass.

You’ve likely heard me say it before: endless cardio isn’t your friend. Chronic, high level training raises cortisol levels, which can deplete muscle and taxes the body’s organs and immune function that support them. If you’re talking about maintaining and building lean muscle mass and supporting the vitality of your organs, rethink the cardio craze you see around you at the gym.

So, now we turn it over to our good readers. Your comments, observations, questions? Thanks for your contributions, and be well!

independentman, 416style Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Dear Mark: Pondering Protein

Dumb Little Man: Top 5 Muscle Tips for a Buff Body

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TAGS:  Aging

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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34 thoughts on “The Role of Lean Muscle Mass and Organ Reserve in Aging”

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  1. I’m still having a hard time understanding what “chronic high level training” is, exactly. I’m pretty sure I’m still guilty of this one (although I cut back considerably since reading your Cardio Diet) How much is too much? Is there a heart rate zone you guys can give me? A time limit? Am I overthinking this?? Thanks for the help everyone!

  2. I’ve been reading up on the telomere thing, and apparently one of the major problems with preventing the degeneration of telomeres, is that the same process that ruins our telomeres is also the process that helps our body fight cancer. In other words stunting telomere degeneration is like releasing black widows into your home to get rid of a wasp problem.

  3. “At the time of life when protein plays a more essential role than ever, older men and women typically reduce their protein intake.”

    And yet, even the government recommends less protein as you get older.

    Check out Enter data for a 25 yr old and a 65 yr old. For the 25 yr old, the recommendation is for more grain, more veg and more protein.

    I recently read a report that indicates the higher your blood albumin level is the more likely you’ll survive a major illness or injury. And how to increase blood albumin?? Increase your protein intake, that’s how!!

    So why is protein looked at as something bad? Something that should be restricted?

  4. Just wanted to take the time to say how much I ADORE your site…adding you to my secret blog crushes blogroll…though now it’s not so secret 🙂


  5. Charlotte, I would say anything going over 45min will start with the elevation of cortisol and muscle breakdown. One way to combat it is to take some amino acids pre and during an event if you need to participate in. But intensity is more important than duration. So 20min of spriting/running type activity will yeild 10x better results for fat loss and health in the long term than 1 hour of “fat burning zone” cardio (which is a bunch of bull sold by the manufacturers of cardio machines).

    If you do participate in longer sports (like I play ice hockey which goes for hours), you can do some sipping on a protein/amino formula that will help minimize muscle breakdown, also antioxidants pre workout help. But that sport is mostly anaerobic sprints up and down the ice…it’s not the same as jogging.

    and yes you are thinking too much! Ha. Just enjoy your fitness and stop worring about zones and calories burned. If you do things the right way you will get the results you are looking for anyways.

  6. Charlotte,

    MikeOD’s got a good handle on it. Don’t overthink this. I come from that chronic-exerciser group (and look at me – I’m still kicking it big time) so my main point is not to get caught up in those countless hours of aerobic nowheresville. It’s a waste of time at best and could do damage at worst…but that’s when you get to 2-3 hours a day or more.

  7. i remember you from your appearance on the doug koffman tv show several years back. then i read your article in the rivendell reader about three months ago, about groks. problem. you seem to be down on grain. i know for a certainty that i cured a hemhorid problem a few years ago, by daily consuming pancakes made from hard red winter whole wheat which i raised and ground myself. took only a few weeks to get rid of that sucker and it has not returned. and i just caught some more grain from the combine yesterday. it seems that the insoluble fiber greatly benefits the softness of the stool. also contains considerable vit k and is about thirteen percent protein. i am 63 yrs old. and a biker. pedals. thoroughly enjoy eating your apple every day. jah. would like to hear your comment on this grain. thanks, mf

  8. Mike,

    Glad you enjoyed the Rivendell piece. Yes, I am down on grain, even though I ate it in large amounts for 45 years. I will probably not consume much ever again, knowing what I know.

    Having said that, if you believe your red wheat was a reason for your improvement, who am I to convince you otherwise. We ahev written much about grains on our site over the past few years, so without rehashing old news, I might ask you to search for “grain” on the site to get a better overall sense of where we are coming from.

  9. This is very inspiring post and site. I know that all those who are serious about muscle mass building and even about the general fitness only , in deed need as much genuine and usefull real life informations and guidelines in order to advance fast. I would also like to see more practical hints about different workout technics if possible. S.J.

  10. Mark:

    You have mentioned many times that lean muscle mass and organ reserve are related with the implication being that building up muscle mass will improve organ reserve. But unlike most of the other claims you make, I have not seen you refer to any research to support this one.

    So I’d like to know if you can cite research which shows the two are correlated and, more importantly that increasing muscle mass increases organ reserve capacity.


  11. Gary, here’s my favorite review article “The underappreciated role of muscle in health and disease”

    Then, if you go to and search for “organ reserve” you’ll see a number of references. Not a lot has been done on it, but there are enough references in medicine regarding the diminished organ reserve in patients who have muscle atrophy…in fact that’s one reason they want people to work out and “get fit” before surgery. So they will have increased organ reserve during this induced medical crisis.

  12. Hi Mark,
    I’ve always had difficulty gaining muscle and weight period. I believe lactose intolerance created bad digestive issues for me over the years. When I ate wheat I was around 185 lbs at 6 ft 1 in. I stopped eating wheat about 2 years ago and dropped 20 lbs in the first 2 months. I can’t seem to budge above 163/4 lbs. I’m afraid to even work out, b/c I might lose more weight. I follow a paleo /raw primal diet for the most part and eat very little non – gluten grain. Obviously you can’t diagnose me with this little info, but do you have any suggestions I should try?
    Dan the thin man

  13. Hi Mark,
    I absolutely LOVE MarksDailyApple – and am becoming more educated by all the fantastic information that is provided! Thank You So Much!!! 😉