It’s health resolution time, which for many people means storming Google with questions about getting and staying fit. A lot of the answers that bubble up to the top of the search results tend to center around losing weight.
Assessing our body weight is one way we can gain a quantitative insight into our general state of health and fitness; it tells us “how much” weight we’re carrying. But the better question to ask is, “what kind” of weight is it? Measuring and monitoring our body composition—the relative amount of fat versus fat-free mass—we have will ultimately provide us with more useful, qualitative information.
Fat is the substance almost everyone fears. However, body fat is necessary for the body to function. It provides the body with a mechanism for storing energy; it protects the internal organs and regulates body temperature, among other things.
Fat-free mass includes the weight of your skeletal muscle, organ, bone, connective tissue, and water content; essentially anything you've got that isn’t fat. There are numerous benefits to maintaining a lean (but healthy) ratio of fat to fat-free mass (F: FFM).
A healthy F:FFM ratio supports a stronger metabolism.
Lean body mass is associated with your basal metabolic rate (BMR), the number of calories your body requires to maintain its vital functions while at rest. Muscles, even at rest, require energy in the form of calories; fat cells do not. The greater the amount of lean muscle you carry, the more calories you burn throughout the day which decreases the likelihood of any excess fat accumulation.
A healthy F:FFM ratio supports better blood sugar control.
Carrying more muscle will improve your insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity is a term used to describe people who require lower levels of insulin to process glucose (blood sugar). People with less muscle mass tend to be less insulin sensitive, which means they will need to manufacture more insulin in order to effectively process glucose. High insulin levels can contribute not only to poor body composition and decreased athletic performance, but to early aging and the onset of chronic disease.
A healthy F:FFM ratio supports a faster, more complete recovery from an illness or injury.
Illness, injury and intense training will all increase the body’s need for protein to heal and adapt. Often, these protein needs are far beyond what we can realistically get from food. The breakdown of muscle occurs to meet this increased protein requirement. So, athletes who carry less muscle mass to begin with will have even more difficulty satisfying the minimum energy demands of the body—let alone making the positive gains that are essential for the increased muscle growth that is directly linked to improved health and fitness.
A healthy F:FFM ratio supports stronger, healthier bones
More muscle equals better bones, especially as we age. Not only does muscle contraction create a force that stimulates healthy bone remodeling, research has shown a positive correlation between muscle size and bone density and strength.
Improving your body composition is a worthwhile—but not instantaneous—endeavor. Seeing some tangible results will require at least a few months. Implementing these three simple strategies can help speed the process along:
1. Improve your body’s metabolic flexibility. Metabolic flexibility is the capacity to match fuel oxidation to fuel availability—or switch between burning carbohydrates and burning fat. Someone with great metabolic flexibility can burn carbs when they eat them. They can burn fat when they eat it (or when they don’t eat at all). And they can switch between carbohydrate metabolism and fat metabolism with relative ease, depending on their body’s most immediate needs. If you know someone who can “eat whatever the heck they want, then he or she most likely has excellent metabolic flexibility. The first step to becoming metabolically flexible is to become fat adapted, gradually transitioning your body’s engine toward burning fat (instead of carbohydrates) as its preferred fuel source.
2. Eat fermented foods. Eating live cultures will restore and balance the levels of healthy bacteria that drive and determine how the body metabolizes and uses the macronutrients—carbohydrates, fats, and proteins—we eat. You can read more about the benefits of eating ferments in one of my previous posts here.
3. Sleep. According to research, one of every three adults gets less than six hours of sleep a night. Unfortunately, in today’s world, the notion of getting a full night’s sleep seems to fall somewhere between an unattainable luxury and an unfortunate biological handicap that gets in the way of you being able to get things done. But if you care about your health and you’re working to change your body composition, ignoring your body’s natural need for sleep could be seriously limiting your health, performance, and recovery.
Keep in mind that changing your body composition isn't a singular goal, it’s two: (1) Increasing your lean body mass (by increasing skeletal muscle) and (2) reducing your fat mass.
Both will lead to a positive change in your body composition. And both are affected by sleep, which can increase the amount of anabolic or muscle-building growth hormone your body has available to work with.
Although it might require a 180 degree shift in thinking, consider putting your bathroom scale back in the closet and prioritize getting a solid eight hours (or more) of sleep.
That's all for now. Happy holidays!
About the author
Jackie Cruickshank Cohen is an NBHWC Board Certified Health and WellnessCoach, True Cellular Detox Certified Practitioner, author, and elite master’s athlete.