Having healthy muscles helps you to walk, run, play sport, move easily, lift things, pump blood through your body and even breathe. We have over 600 muscles in our body and when we think of muscles, what usually comes to mind are our voluntary or skeletal muscles – the ones we are able to control. They attach to our bones and work together with them to do most things such as playing an instrument, throwing a ball, walking the dog, or even talking. Other muscles are smooth or involuntary muscles which we do not control, or usually even think about. These do things like focus your eyes or work in your digestive system to move food through your body and expel waste. Your heart is also a muscle, the cardiac muscle. It is a specialised type of involuntary muscle that pumps blood through your body and speeds up or slows down according to the demands you put on it.1
Things that can go wrong with our muscles
Things that can go wrong with our muscles include pain, cramps, tension, spasms, injury and atrophy. Atrophy is when muscles become smaller and weaker, usually because they have not been used enough.1 Keeping your muscles healthy will help you to do all of the things you enjoy doing. Healthy and strong muscles will also help with keeping your joints in good shape. If the muscles around your knee joint become weak, for example, you are more likely to injure your knee. Also, remember any activity that keeps your skeletal muscles strong, will also keep your heart muscle strong.1 Some factors that can impact your muscle health may include:
- Inactivity – often causes muscle weakness and loss because muscles need physical activity to stay strong and healthy.
- Age – related muscle changes (atrophy) – factors such as the shrinking of muscle fibres as well as muscle tissue being replaced more slowly with tougher, more fibrous tissue may contribute to fatigue, weakness and reduced tolerance to exercise. Loss of mobility and independence then become more likely.3 Age-related muscle changes are thought to be related to inactivity. Recent studies have shown that fewer than one in ten Australians over the age of fifty does enough exercise to improve or maintain fitness.2 Estimates of muscle loss that comes with age range from 8 to 50 percent – and men seem to lose muscle faster than women.3
- Protein intake – some research has showed that protein intake may affect muscle loss as we age. Foods with protein include animal foods such as beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fish, eggs and milk. It is also found in beans, nuts and seeds.3
- Tension, stress, overuse and injury – these are the most common causes of muscle pain which usually affects just one or more muscles or parts of your body. Muscle pain felt throughout the body is usually the result of infection, illness or medication.4
- Dehydration – may lead to muscle cramps.1
- Inadequate calcium, potassium or magnesium in your diet are thought to cause muscle cramps.5
- Pregnancy – muscle cramps are more common during pregnancy.5
Symptoms of poor muscle health
Symptoms of muscle issues may include muscle weakness, pain, tension, cramping or spasms, injuries such as strains or sprains as well as muscle atrophy. Reducing the risk of injury or muscle weakness can be achieved by managing daily lifestyle activities:
- Use it or lose it – stay active to keep your muscles healthy. Being physically active will make your muscles work better and grow stronger. They could even get bigger by adding more muscle tissue. Choose a sport or activity you enjoy and try to aim for 60 minutes per day. Any activity that makes you breathe harder and faster will also exercise the heart muscle.1
- Avoiding muscle pain and injury – make sure you warm up and cool down and wear suitable protective gear if necessary. Don’t play through the pain – stop immediately if something starts to hurt. Always go slow – If you haven’t been very active it is important to start slowly and gradually increase activities over time.5
- Stop cramps – not enough potassium, calcium or magnesium in your diet can contribute to muscle cramps such as leg cramps. Diuretics may also deplete these minerals.5 Keep an eye on your water intake as dehydration can cause muscle cramps too.5
- Eat meat to slow down muscle loss and fatigue – to avoid muscle loss, eat good quality protein such as found in animal products or from beans, nuts and seeds.3 Meat such as beef and chicken is also a good source of the mineral iron which is important for getting enough oxygen to your muscles. If your muscles don’t get enough oxygen it can make you feel weak and tired.1
- Eat healthy – you don’t need a specific diet to keep your muscles healthy but you should always try to have a balanced diet. This includes plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains as well as adequate lean meat and dairy products. Focus on good quality fats from fish, nuts and seeds and avoid trans-fats from processed foods.
- Consider protein supplements if you struggle to get enough protein in your diet. These days there are plenty to choose from, with many additional benefits such as added superfoods.
- Magnesium – this is an essential mineral that is important for muscle function and the cardiovascular system. Supplementation may relieve muscle cramps, weakness and spasms. Regular strenuous exercise may increase the need for magnesium.
- Calcium and vitamin D – calcium is important for bone and muscle health. It helps maintain heart, muscle and nerve function and is required for the muscles to contract. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium.
- To manage muscle tension from stress try progressive muscle relaxation – tense each muscle group for at least 5 seconds and then relax for up to 30 seconds. Repeat before moving to the next muscle group. You may also like to try stretching exercises and Yoga.
Frequently asked questions
I have been doing a lot of sport, should I change my diet for muscle health?
Strenuous exercise may increase the need for magnesium. Magnesium is a mineral important for muscle function. Good sources of magnesium include whole grains, green leafy vegetables, legumes and nuts.
When should I see a doctor for muscle cramps?
Muscle cramps are rarely serious, however you may like to see your doctor if there is no obvious cause, such as strenuous exercise, or if it happens frequently and doesn’t improve with self-care. If there is severe discomfort, leg swelling, redness or skin changes seek medical attention.5