Muscle, Exercise and Protein


One of the things I love over Christmas and New Year is watching The World’s Strongest Man contest. It’s brilliant to see these guys carrying cars and tossing kegs.

Dr Gabrielle Lyon did a podcast with Dr Rangan Chatterjee and said that if we gain more muscle, we can protect our skeleton, improve mobility and balance, burn more fat, lower our risk of disease, increase our energy levels and live longer, better lives.

The WHO definition of healthy ageing is “to retain functional independence”.  So it’s the strength rather than the size of muscles  that matters and the new drugs that only increase muscle mass do not bring benefits.


Our muscle mass reaches its peak in our mid-30s and then goes down by about 1% per year. For over 60s, it’s been found (WHO) that the death rate is halved in the strongest 1/3 of the population. If you didn’t get an exercise habit when you were young, it becomes more and more important as you get older.

Muscles store energy as glycogen, a type of sugar. With less muscle, there’s less storage space for sugar and this can change your metabolism making insulin resistance and diabetes worse. Muscles also burn energy all the time even when you’re resting, so increasing your muscle is great for weight loss.

Hospitalization presents another danger. 10 days of bed rest causes a muscle loss of 2% in a young person but 10% in an elderly person. That’s 10 years of muscle loss in just over a week and very hard to get back. Accelerated muscle loss in the elderly is called sarcopenia and is a cause of frailty, falls and death.


Even though muscle is important in so many ways, weight training remains much less popular than aerobic exercise. Gyms can put people off – the costs, the equipment, the other people that go there…(!)… Luckily, it’s easy enough to do resistance training at home, either with some simple hand weights (eg dumbbells, tins or bottles) or your body weight (eg press-ups, lunges and squats).

Large weights put people off and can cause injury. Fortunately you can get a similar benefit by using small weights and doing the exercises very slowly. Women worry about getting big muscles but it’s very unlikely. I’ve been weight training for 40 years and my upper arms still measure only 10″ (25cm) like they always have.

Best of all is to do a mix of exercise types. Gabrielle recommends resistance training at least four days a week plus high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Dan John suggests everyone >50 should check that they’re able to stand on one foot for 10 seconds, so a 30-sec deep squat, hang from a bar for 30s, get off the ground without using their hands and do a 5 foot standing long jump. Brendan Egan recommends 2 sessions of strength work and 3 sessions of aerobic a week plus stretching/flexibility – I once heard Donny Osmond say, “as you get older it’s important to stay limber.”

Another big hazard is sitting for long periods. Just stand up every 20-30 minutes to engage with gravity – it’s called non-exercise movement (see Joan Vernikos, Sitting Kills) and brings big benefits for something so simple.

Brendan concluded from his studies that it’s never too late to start exercising and everyone can gain strength. Find a gym or personal trainer to advise you if you’ve never done it before or look at YouTube and people like Joe Wicks. Anything you do is good and if you start doing more than you’ve been doing before, that’s great so have a go and feel good about getting moving.


We all need protein, and not just for building muscles. Protein is made of amino acids and these building blocks are also essential for making your bones, enzymes and hormones. There are ways of calculating how much you need if you’re willing to go to the trouble. Dr Stuart Phillips believes the sweet spot is ~1.2g of protein per kg of body weight. The modern carb-heavy diet mean we get little protein except in the evening meal.

I encourage people to include three things in every meal: plants, proteins and fats. Most breakfasts are not much more than sugar and really class as deserts so it’s the meal with most scope for improvement eg by adding some egg, ham or fish. In Norway they serve herrings done 3 ways. This morning I had mackerel (protein) with half a pear (plant), some seeds (fat) and half a slice of buttered (fat) toast.

If you don’t want protein in your breakfast, you could add more to your lunch, like this salad. There’s a threshold of about 20g to trigger muscle building (3 eggs or a couple of ounces of meat). In studies of older adults, protein and exercise, Brendan Egan found the key amino acid is leucine (whey is a good source) and that omega 3 fats increase the effect suggesting that animal proteins are better. On the other hand I just saw a pubmed abstract of a 10-week study showing similar results from exercise with plant only or mixed omnivorous protein.

There’s no need to go mad though. If you eat more protein than you need, or you eat it without exercising, your body will turn it into carbohydrate and burn it or turn it into fat, which is a waste of such a high quality food when we all get more than enough carbohydrate already.

Older people will need more protein in each meal just to meet their basic needs. Appetite decreases with age often leaving people getting too little. At the same time, absorption decreases so it’s a double whammy.

When trying to build or retain muscle, timing matters too. Brendan’s trials found that eating a high-protein snack 20 minutes after exercising is best. After 2h the muscle-building effect is lost.

Bonus Nutrients

Protein source foods bring other valuable nutrients with them and the type matters as well as the amount. Animals fed on grass produce superior fatty acid profiles to animals kept indoors and fed on grains and soya. If you don’t eat animal foods you are probably deficient in vitamin B12, iron, sulphur, creatine, carnosine, taurine, long chain omega 3 fats (EPA and DHA), collagen and conjugated linoleic acid. There are supplements available. Fake meats should be avoided by everyone. They usually contain high levels of harmful omega 6 fats as well as chemicals (not necessarily listed on the label) to make them look and taste fit to eat.  As always, eat real food.

Top tip – Do resistance exercise and include protein in your meals.

Eat Yourself Well

I’m about to deliver an Eat Yourself Well day for The Create Escape in Milnthorpe, Cumbria.

They run lovely days, each on a special topic like pottery, creative writing, photography, chemical-free cosmetics – plus a cookery demonstration followed by a 2-course lunch, in a delightful farmhouse with an entertaining double act from hosts Angela and Debs.

Some questions I’ll be asking are:

  • how well are you now?
  • how well do you want to be?
  • how high is food in your priorities?

Helen Gerson said there are only two root causes of chronic disease: Deficiency and toxicity.

She was talking about non-infectious things like T2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, aches, pains, digestive woes, skin problems, lack of energy.

Food can boost your health or damage your health.

You can do yourself good by stuffing in lots of untainted goodness.  Think back to the 70s – meat and two veg, cooked at home.  It simplifies your shopping, it’s quick, it’s cheap, it’s satisfying, you can make it tasty and you’ll feel so much better.I fear that marketing is now the number 1 factor governing what we buy rather than the effect on our bodies.

Manufactured food is much more profitable than home-cooked food so it’s thrust under your nose all day long. Sadly it has lower or damaged nutrients and often contains health damaging chemicals. It’s addictive by design, leading to over-eating and leaving many people over-fed and undernourished. If you buy anything with an ingredients list, read it. Avoid sugar, sweeteners, vegetable oil and anything with more than 5 ingredients.

The good news is that you can easily choose to take care of yourself with a quick trip to the butchers and the green grocers.

Your body will say, “Thank You” when you eat yourself well.


  • Food is not just fuel. Think about goodness rather than calories.
  • Eat natural, local and seasonal: fresh vegetables and fruit, grass-fed, free-range meat, non-farmed fish, natural fats.
  • Minimise sugar, vegetable oil and processed food.
  • Drink water to quench your thirst.
  • Buy real food, cook with love, eat with gratitude and enjoy!

What would I recommend off these promotional flyers?

Just the eggs on the first one and the beef, chicken and cheese on the second.

Ultimate Budget Meal 81p

You’ve nearly made it through the school holidays and so here is the ultimate in high-nutrition, budget food.

Some people don’t like liver but it’s worth persevering as it contains so many vitamins and minerals. I didn’t like it until a few years ago but occasionally I’d order it if it was on a pub menu – my body must have told my subconscious that I needed a boost. In France they get kids to eat almost anything by tasting repeatedly – they don’t have to eat the food but must taste it. After a few times, usually they like it.  Take a look at this article by the Sustainable Food Trust.

Liver and Onions to serve 2

Slice one medium onion 20p

Fry in a knob of butter for 3 mins 10p

Put the onion in a bowl

Add a teaspoon of coconut oil 5p

Fry 400g sliced liver until browned all over 80p

Turn down the heat and leave to cook slowly

Boil 500g potatoes for 15 mins 25p

(I don’t know why you need more when you’re going to mash them than just eating them boiled but you do!)

For the last 2 minutes, chop and steam a heap of kale 30p

or cabbage 10p

over your potatoes

Put the onions back in the pan with the liver

Drain the potatoes and mash with butter and milk 12p

Total for the most nutritious food on the planet £1.82.

That’s 91p per person with kale or 81p with cabbage.

NB If you take warfarin, you’ll need to choose a different dinner as liver and kale are both high in vitamin K.

Perceptions of Normality

At every point in history, people perceive the things they do as normal, including what they eat. Socially, we have evolved to fit in with what everybody does. In these modern times, we also align our behaviour to the images and messages with which the media constantly bombard us.

Some years ago, there was a successfulCornetto advertising campaign to convince people that sugar was an aid to dieting – “eat a biscuit before lunch or an ice cream”! It seems ridiculous to us now but people bought into it then. The current trend is fat avoidance which we’ll no doubt look back on with disbelief. The sad truth is that experts in marketing can change what we think so that we’ll change what we buy.

Bowl of cerealBreakfast cereal arrived in the UK in 1900 and gained popularity in 1930 but even as recently as the 1950s and 60s, breakfast would have been cooked eggs, fish or meat. Ready meals were limited to Vesta chicken supreme with boil in the bag rice which I recall with misery cooking on a primus stove while camping but would never have eaten at home. Takeaways meant fish and chips carried home wrapped in newspaper. Nowadays people think it’s normal to order by ‘phone and have any variety of fast food delivered to their door.

What’s really normal? For millions of years we were hunter gatherers eating only meat and low-glycemic index plants. Farming started around 10,000 years ago increasing consumption of grains. Intensive farming, processed food and chemical additives burgeoned after WWII. This is the blink of an eye in human history. We have not evolved to the modern diet; our bodies still want natural meat, fish and veg.

Top tip: Eat real food – that’s what’s normal for humans.

What price meat?

Did you see Michael Mosely’s two part documentary on meat? The first part considered health and, at the risk of me massively over-simplifying an hour-long programme, seemed to conclude that eating fresh meat is fine but processed meat may increase your chance of cancer.

The second part considered environmental effects. This, I felt, focussed far too much on production of green house gasses and ignored other environmental impacts. The man at a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) in America cheerfully said his was the green way to raise cattle. He completely ignored the fact that his animals lived in a barren, grey wilderness reminiscent of a concentration camp. There was not a single plant, insect, butterfly, bee or bird to be seen. This is not my vision of green farming.

Any environmentally friendly, sustainable farming system needs to include protection of biodiversity and care for the land itself. Grass stabilises the land and prevents desertification, so grass and grazing animals naturally bring environmental benefits. The manure that the animals produce fertilizes the land so that it retains its nutrients. Contrast this with the CAFO animals whose dung is a problematic waste to be disposed of and whose food is corn grown using artificial fertilizers in a cycle that depletes that land and pollutes the water.

Large areas of some countries are given over to growing crops like corn and soy, in huge mono-culture farms, just for animal feed. The natural diet for cattle is grass. Corn and soy cause health problems for the animals and change the profile of the meat to higher omega 6 content and lower omega 3 so the meat is less good for us – there was no mention of this.

Take a look at

Top tip: Buy grass-fed, local meat.