Fatty tissue gets a bad reputation for good reason. Carrying excess body fat can negatively impact both physical activity and metabolism – delivering a double whammy to health and fitness goals. But why exactly is fatty tissue such a roadblock on the path to wellness? Let's break it down.
How Does Fatty Tissue Affect Muscle Strength and Growth?
Adding muscle is a key objective for many people looking to improve their health. Lean muscle mass boosts metabolism, supports bone density, and contributes to strength and mobility. Unfortunately, excess fat can work against muscle growth in a couple of ways.
Fat Takes Up Space Needed for Muscle Growth
Muscle growth requires space to expand. As personal trainer Dan Long told Verywell Fit:
“In order to increase muscle size, the muscle cells need to grow and increase in number. But fat takes up space between muscle fibers where new muscle growth could occur.”
Fatty tissue crowds out room that could otherwise be used for muscle expansion and hypertrophy. Think of it as a pie that can only grow so large. Taking up more space with fat leaves less capacity for increasing the muscular slice of the pie.
Fat Interferes with Muscle-Building Signals
Growing muscle requires cellular signaling to ramp up muscle protein synthesis. As explained by sports scientist Dr. Mike in a Strength Sensei article, accumulation of fatty tissue can blunt these muscle-building signals:
“Fat cells release inflammatory molecules that inhibit insulin and IGF-1 signaling. Since insulin and IGF-1 are two of the main anabolic hormones responsible for muscle growth, excess fat can negatively affect hypertrophy.”
The inflammatory impact of fatty tissue creates an unfavorable environment for muscle growth. It's like trying to build a tower on a shaky foundation. Your body ends up fighting against itself rather than cooperating for muscle growth.
Fat Burn Calories Less Efficiently Than Muscle
Losing weight requires a calorie deficit, meaning you burn more calories than you consume. Unfortunately, fat tissue burns far fewer calories than lean muscle mass.
According to Harvard Medical School, muscle burns about 6 calories per pound per day at rest, while fat only burns about 2 calories. So replacing 10 pounds of muscle with 10 pounds of fat would reduce resting energy expenditure by about 40 calories per day.
Over time, this slower metabolism makes it easier to gain weight and harder to lose it. Let's look at an example:
- Person A has 140 pounds of lean mass and 20% body fat
- Person B has 130 pounds lean mass and 30% body fat
Although they weigh the same, Person A burns 60 more calories per day at rest due to their greater muscle mass. This adds up to over 20,000 additional calories burned in a year!
Clearly, holding onto muscle while minimizing fat is optimal for metabolism and weight management. As fitness expert Jill Coleman told Verywell Fit:
“Fat takes up space where you otherwise could have had calorie-burning, strength-building muscle.”
Trading hard-working muscle for sedentary fat is a surefire path to a sluggish metabolism.
Why Is Losing Muscle Especially Risky After Age 30?
Age 30 often marks a turning point in body composition. Without strength training, the average person begins to lose up to 3-5 pounds of muscle per decade after age 30.
This age-related muscle loss, known as sarcopenia, has challenging consequences:
- Lower calorie burn: As muscle is lost, so is resting metabolic rate. Fewer muscle-powered calories burned makes weight gain more likely.
- Greater fat gain: Muscle loss is often accompanied by fat gain, especially harmful visceral fat around the organs. This sets the stage for obesity and related health risks.
- Loss of strength: With diminished muscle mass comes reduced strength for daily activities. This leads to fatigue, mobility issues, and higher risk of falls and fractures.
- Impaired mobility: Sarcopenia coupled with extra body fat can make moving more difficult. Simple physical tasks become increasingly laborious.
- Higher risk of death: Studies link sarcopenia to a higher mortality risk. One meta-analysis found that sarcopenic obesity raised the likelihood of dying early by 24%.
The rapid changes in body composition after 30 make strength training and preserving muscle mass more crucial than ever for health. As registered dietitian Amanda Izquierdo-Pulido told Livestrong:
“Muscle mass is crucial for a fast metabolism. Any loss of lean mass as you age can set you up for weight gain and negatively affect your overall health.”
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Strength Training: The Best Defense Against Fatty Tissue
Aerobic activity like jogging or biking burns calories, but does little to build muscle mass. To defend against loss of muscle, strength training is essential – especially after age 30.
Resistance exercises apply tension to the muscles, triggering the growth signals that add size and strength to muscle fibers. This muscle-building stimulus is the key to offsetting age-related muscle loss.
Adding just 2-3 strength sessions per week can make a tremendous difference in body composition. Studies show regular resistance training helps:
- Increase lean muscle mass
- Decrease body fat percentage
- Raise resting metabolic rate
- Improve functional strength and mobility
Strength training defenses against visceral fat gain and obesity. One year-long study found adults who weight trained just twice a week lost 4.6 pounds of dangerous visceral fat while gaining over 2 pounds of lean mass.
Consistency with strength training is key. Studies show those who stick with it long-term experience the greatest benefits to body composition and metabolic rate.
Optimizing Diet to Reduce Fatty Tissue
Along with strength training, nutrition plays a major role in controlling excess fatty tissue.
Focus on whole, high-protein foods like lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, beans, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle mass.
Minimize added sugar, refined grains, and processed foods. These nutritionally-poor calories promote visceral fat gain and metabolic damage.
Don't fear healthy fats. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from foods like avocado, olive oil, nuts and fish are great for metabolic health and shown to reduce abdominal fat.
Stay hydrated. Drinking water can temporarily boost metabolism. Being dehydrated signals the body to conserve energy and downregulates fat burning.
Monitor portions. It's easy to overeat calorie-dense fatty and sugary foods. Tracking portions and calories can help maintain an optimal calorie balance for weight management.
Fatty tissue indeed delivers a double blow – impeding both muscle growth and metabolic rate. Strength training is the most powerful tool against loss of muscle as we age. Combined with a wholesome, protein-rich diet, it helps maintain a healthy body composition and energy-burning muscle mass.
By staying consistent with resistance exercise throughout adulthood, we can offset the age-related shift toward fat gain and muscle loss. Outsmarting these changes leads to better fitness, function and metabolism even in later decades of life.
So don't accept fatty tissue as an inevitable consequence of aging. With smart strength training and nutrition habits, you can defend against excess fat and the double whammy to your health