The importance of muscle for health

Most people see building muscle as vain or egotistical. When we think of muscle building we often think of body builders or athletes but it’s important role in health for general population is hugely under-appreciated.

The importance of muscle for health

This is a topic I am extremely passionate about.

Most people see building muscle as vain or egotistical. When we think of muscle building we often think of body builders or athletes but it’s important role in health for general population is hugely under-appreciated.

Building and using muscle is just as, if not more important than diet for your metabolic health yet we seem to focus so much of our attention on demonizing sugar and body fat.. which are another topic for another day… and not enough on the impact of muscle on health.

It’s common to focus on sugar consumption or body fat when talking about metabolic health / disease e.g. type 2 diabetes. A much less common consideration is the important role of muscle.

Let’s use diabetes as an example:

Post meal blood sugar control is one of the key problems faced by type 2 diabetics. Healthy individuals can quickly lower blood glucose levels after a meal but in uncontrolled diabetes glucose levels stay elevated.

Muscle is the biggest site of glucose disposal after eating. And highly sensitive muscle that is used frequently has an enhanced ability to take in glucose from the blood.

Type 2 diabetes is a disease that develops over time in various stages and one of the first things to occur is insulin resistance of muscle (and liver but we will focus on muscle here). 

The presence of insulin or the act of stimulus of exercise results in the translocation of glucose transporters to the cell surface of the muscle cells to take in glucose from the blood. Resistance or insensitivity to the presence of insulin results in a reduced ability to clear blood glucose in diabetes.

An analogy I like to use for this is that insulin is like someone knocking on the door of the cell and in a healthy individual the glucose transporters hear the knocking and open the door to let glucose in. However, when an individual develops insulin resistance the glucose transporters become (at least partially) deaf and stop responding as well to the knocking meaning not as much glucose is let in.

We often attribute insulin resistance to increased body fat and under appreciate the role of muscle’s metabolic function.

Increased body fat alone does not cause insulin resistance. Obese people who are not insulin resistant do not have the same problems controlling their glucose levels. Some people term these individuals ‘healthy obese’ and is one of the many reasons you cannot judge someone’s healthy purely by their weight.

I am certainly not saying excess body fat does not play a role and there is a strong body of evidence showing that when overweight type 2 diabetics lose ~10% of their body weight they tend to put their diabetes into remission. The problem with this is we know it’s hard. It is often achieved in this population by VERY low-calorie diets e.g. the Newcastle diet which is 600-800 calories a day. 

We also know that maintaining weight loss is hard AND that people who exercise tend to be better at maintaining their weight loss. 

And we know that increased exercise & activity (even ‘just’ walking) reduces risk of type 2 diabetes independently of changes in body fat.

I don’t want to create another false dichotomy and say we shouldn’t focus on diet we should focus on exercise because we should focus on both… BUT at the moment I don’t think we focus enough on exercise.

Especially exercise that grows or at least maintains muscle.

Here is some proof to back it up:

This study found that muscular strength is inversely and independently associated with death from all causes and cancer in men, even after adjusting for cardiorespiratory fitness and other potential confounders.

Focusing on exercise is especially useful for people who have struggled with dieting before (basically anyone who’s struggled with their weight) to realise they are doing themselves the world of good if they are exercising even if they don’t lose weight.

We’ve all heard the sh*tty comments ‘what’s the point going to the gym.. you’ve not lost any weight’ or ‘why are you going you don’t need to lose weight’… As if the sole purpose of exercise is weight loss.

There are so many benefits to exercise beyond weight loss / how many calories you burn during.

Even if you have a load of excess fat you want to lose and you don’t lose any you are still drastically improving your health by exercising.

Not to mention mental health, social and mood benefits.

I hate that people think of exercise solely for fat loss. It’s incredible no matter what your size or goal.

Exercise doesn’t get enough credit for its impact on health. We tend to focus on being lean as the epitome of health when actually the research shows that people who are fit and obese don’t have the same health risks as those who are obese but not fit. Again, health is not a size or body fat %. It is multifactorial!

And further to that point… Fitness is a better predictor of Health and longevity than BMI or body fat is. The authors of this review conclude that:  ‘Researchers, clinicians, and public health officials should focus on physical activity and fitness-based interventions rather than weight-loss driven approaches to reduce mortality risk.’


The above image shows an estimate of the number of deaths in a population that would have been avoided if a specific risk factor had been absent. As you can see low physical activity has a far bigger impact than obesity.

So if you’ve recently increased your activity and exercise but you’ve not lost weight don’t give up because you’re getting huge benefits even if you don’t see a change on the scales.

Why I am passionate about focusing on the power of exercise: 

It is far more fun and empowering to focus on building muscle and the amazing things your body can do than it is to focus on weight loss.

Not only this but building muscle is empowering whereas dieting tends not to be (although certainly can be when it’s done right!).

The awesome thing about exercise is it makes you feel good and when you feel good and you feel like you improving your health guess what happens… you make healthier food choices.. not because you are being forced into dieting but because you want to. You start appreciating your body for the amazing things it can do rather than punishing it by over restricting food and trying to stick to an unenjoyable and unsustainable diet. 

Type 2 diabetics get it hard as they are usually prescribed 2 of the hardest diets to stick to low carb or very low calorie.

Rather than that let’s focus on moving more, building muscle and making some good food choices… CHOICE not restriction (an important differentiation).

It is important that you enjoy the journey because to maintain results you’re going to have to maintain behaviours and you’re not going to stick to something that makes you miserable (nor do you need to get results)

If you want any help building muscle and or losing fat then click here.

If you’ve enjoyed this article please give it a share!

Thank you for your attention,


If you enjoyed this and want to listen to the podcast on muscle and health it is click here and here is one on exercise and ageing too!

Your 2020 review



Insights from working with 1000’s of people to help them look, feel & perform at their best



Buy your tickets here


Time : 9am – 4pm 
Date : 23rd Sunday feb
Location : Sweatbox Dundee




☀️ 9am – Welcome


15 mins Open Q + A / Get to know Sheli + Emma


☀️ 9:15am – Seminar Topic 1 
The 10 biggest lesson we have learnt working with 1000s of clients


☀️10:15am Sweat Class workout


☀️11:30am – 12:30 Yoga + Movement Flow


☀️12:30 -1pm LUNCH


☀️1pm -2pm :


ESG : Fat loss: Theory into practise


Sheli : Aesthetics Vs Performance , The Yellow Brick Road .


☀️ 2pm – 3:30pm – Seminar Topic 2


Body image 
The evolving shape of women
Personal confidence
Miss conceptions in fitness




Q+A + Goodbyes


Exercise & Breast Cancer

Found this post from when I was working on this. It is a brilliant example of how complex  cancer is and I hope it stands to prove the over simplification at best and extremely dangerous at worst of claims like ‘ketones can help your cancer’..

Exercise and breast cancer: the effect on the tumor

This data is from animal models of breast cancer expressing triple negative tumors which are the most aggressive, hardest to treat and have the poorest outcomes. 

Before anyone says ‘it isn’t relevant because we are not mice’ .. yes there are limitations however;

– Animal models provide a tool to examine the effects of exercise on tumors in a closed experimental environment in which the lifestyle of the animal as well as the type and intensity of exercise can be controlled. This is not possible in the real world.

– Individuals with breast cancer display huge heterogeneity (they are all different) not just in terms of individual differences in health, age and ethnicity but in relation to their breast cancer type and treatment. This is less of an issue in genetically engineered mice models.

– Animal models also allow us to watch the tumors grow and thus make possible the detailed study of stage-specific responses to exercise. This gives us a greater insight into the development of tumors in relation to exercise and may help to identify the optimal mode, intensity and duration of exercise. 

In conclusion, some of the huge limitations in exercise science – namely sample size, heterogeneity of populations and lack of control can be overcome using animal models. We need to piece the information we get from human and animal studies together to give us the most comprehensive understanding.

On to what animal models can show us about the effect of exercise on breast cancer tumors..

– A reduction in tumor progression. Both the number of tumors and the size of tumors were reduced with exercise. 

– This reduction is thought to be linked to a reduction in inflammation (MCP-1 and IL-6 were both reduced)

– Intensity matters! – the reduction in tumor progression is generally seen in studies that have opted for exercise intensities of about 70% VO2 max. Interestingly, studies that have opted for low intensity exercise have found varying results with some even showing an increase in tumor progression. 

– The age of initiation of exercise (probably in relation to tumor status) may be of importance. Two very similar studies were carried out on a genetic mouse model where one study found a positive effect of exercise and the other found a slight negative effect. One of the key differences is that the positive effect was found when mice began exercise at a much younger age and the negative effect was observed when mice began exercising later in life. This may have implications for the age at which we encourage girls to start routinely exercising.


This last point especially shows the complexity of cancer and how all tumors act differently & actually how even the same tutor can respond differently to a stimulus at a different stage in its life.

Losing more weight doesn’t mean losing more fat

Why fast weight loss isn’t impressive: It’s not (all) fat.

Going through check ins this week a few people seem disappointed with 1-2lb weight loss a week..THAT IS PERFECT!! Which begs the question are your expectations of rate of fat loss realistic?

Faster fat loss probably isn’t more fat.. here is why..

Many of you may have heard that 1lb a week of weight loss is optimal because which 1lb of fat is 3500 calories and this equates to a deficit of 500 calories a day for a week. Cool.

However, the 3500 calorie rule doesn’t quite add up when we look at real world weight loss. It might if you lost weight solely from fat but that is extremely unlikely and even more so in the first week or so of a diet where we often see bigger drops in weight (remember weight loss doesn’t = fat loss).

This is because we use energy from glycogen and muscle breakdown as well as from fat when we are in an energy deficit.

The energy balance equation does not directly refer to weight or weight loss. It refers to energy stores.

Energy balance is the difference between how much energy you take in and how much energy you expend –  over time this indicates how much energy you have stored in your body. This energy can be stored as glycogen in the muscle, as muscle tissue itself or, as fat.

So ,when you are losing weight it is coming from a mixture of glycogen, muscle and fat.. oh and all the fluctuations due to water retention & food volume.

Rapid weight loss can often mean you are losing a higher % of lean body mass and/or water. That’s why you’ll actually lose more weight if you don’t resistance train as you will lose more muscle mass.. just to be clear here.. MORE WEIGHT.. NOT MORE FAT!!!

So, you may weigh less but you will have a higher body fat % and you (arguably) won’t look as good.. unless you were going for the skinny fat look.. each to their own.

If you want to learn how to optimise your fat loss while minimising loss of lean body mass then get in touch.

Free Content from the best minds in fitness

Hello lovely people!

I have had the pleasure of chatting to some amazing minds in fitness on Instagram live over the last 2 weeks or so and I have now uploaded them on to YouTube which you can find here.

If you are interested in getting involved in the discussions then make sure you follow me ESGfitness – I usually try to make them at 8pm but they are available to re watch for 24h and then put on YouTube.

Next week I have:

Dr Emilia Thompson (Intuitive eating advise )
Steven hall (What the science says about building muscle)
Pollyanna Isabella (Marketing- what it actually is and how to make it work for you)
Ben Mudge (Never letting your circumstances hold you back)

If you have any other suggestions for topics or guests do let me know!


Client Question week 2

How long is it ok to diet if you are already lean?

This depends on numerous factors but if we strip back the question to how long can you diet without negative implications. 

There are a few considerations:

– How much body fat do you have to lose?
– Do you have realistic expectations?
– How are you coping mentally?
– How are you coming physically?
– How are you coping socially?

At the end of the day, after you have considered the always comes back to what is sustainable and enjoyable for you. Do you prioritise being a few % body fat leaner or would you rather have more flexibility in food choices and relax and indulge more at social occasions.

Is dieting longer ok if I am in a mild deficit?

This is largely covered above. But, yes, of course you can diet longer in a mild deficit .. assuming you have excess body fat to lose.

What should I expect when I go back to maintenance?

In an ideal world you would expect to maintain your current weight and physique. However, life is never that simple. Even finding your maintenance calorie needs can be a challenge. Slowly increasing calories from your dieting calories is, in my experience, the best way to do this. And then monitor and amend as required until you are maintaining your weight over time.. remember fluctuations are normal and inevitable.

A consideration for those who get very lean should always be.. is this level of body fat maintainable long term?
The truth is, for most the answer is no. This is no failure. It just means you have more priorities than maintaining a very lean physique year round.. this is a good thing.. it means you have a life outside of fitness, it probably means you have a career you enjoy and people who love you and want to spend time with you.
However, not maintaining a very lean physique doesn’t mean you have to go mad the other way and starting ‘bulking’. You may be happy to find that just a few kgs above your leanest is quite sustainable for you. Meaning that, if you did want to lean down again it wouldn’t take much work. You will probably also find the only person who notices those few kgs is you.. or maybe whoever sees you naked.

I also quite like the cyclic dieting for long term goals. If you would like to continue dieting because you haven’t yet reached your goals but need a break physically and/or mentally then having a ‘diet break’ can be a good idea. This can reset some of the negative adaptations to dieting which make it harder to continue to lose fat. E.g. increased hunger, reduced activity, lack of training intensity.

Or increase my calories?

Ideal scenario is that you slowly increase your calories without gaining body fat and simultaneously increase metabolism.

This is wishful thinking.

Your metabolism will increase as you put on weight. There is more of you to maintain. Despite what many people think, your metabolism correlates very well to your body weight and although muscle is more metabolically active than fat the real world difference is small.

Especially when we are looking an experienced natural trainer looking to build muscle mass. The amount of muscle growth will be small and the corresponding increase in metabolic rate will be very small..probably negligible.. maybe you could have an extra 50g of potato with your dinner.

So, as you increase your calories you likely will be put on body fat. Although the extent of which may be less than you would predict given the total calorie increase.

As we diet our body adapts to make it harder for u to continue to lose weight. Some of these adaptations will be undone as you increase calories. The most notable will likely be NEAT and exercise intensity. Moving more and training harder could use up some of the extra calories you are taking in without you realising.

Allowing you to habitually eat more at a given body composition.. which is, I think, what you are asking.

I have waffled a lot as usual so in a nutshell.. as you increase your calories you will likely put on some body fat but possibly not as much as you might think and further this is not a negative.

You will be able to train harder, eat more and enjoy more social eating/drinking without going over your calories.

Win, win, win.

Client Questions week 1:

A question from a client at this week’s check in. I think you can tell far more about a person from the type of questions they ask than how much they know.

Why does it appear that I am now maintaining my weight at a lower calorie intake than when I was lighter and had less muscle (in this case 3 years ago)?

1) Efficiency

You have become more efficient at using calories – this can either be by mechanical efficiency, reduced NEAT, reduced activity energy expenditure or a mixture of all

2) The amount of increased muscle mass has little impact on energy needs

You’ve probably added little muscle mass (this is not meant to be demoralizing or offensive..just fact). You have been training for years, you are lean, you don’t weigh very much and you have a petite frame. The extra calories you burn as a result of the muscle mass you have built in the last 3 years is not going to contribute much to your total daily energy expenditure or in other words.. your calorie needs.
3) Miss reporting/ inaccurate tracking

You think you are eating ‘X’ amount of calories but you are actually eating more than this and either forgetting to track or not measuring portion sizes accurately enough.

You stick to your diet some times, maybe even most of the time.. but not all the time. Standard example is the Mon-Fri dieter who eats what they want on the weekend.

5) You are not at maintenance. 

You are in an energy deficit and you are still losing weight. This fat loss rate is slow as it is a representation of the total amount of body fat you have to lose which is low. This means it is easily masked on the scales from day to day and even week to week. When it comes to losing fat this slowly the scales often aren’t a sensitive enough measure to see fat loss from week to week.

This is something a lot of people do not consider.

If you are lean and thus do not have much fat to lose you can’t expect to be losing your typical 1lb of fat a week. In fact, 0.5lb a week of fat still isn’t that likely if you’re very lean.

So, if we are talking about fat loss of as little as 0.25lb a week can we really expect to see this on the scales given all the other influences? No.

I LOVE questions from clients.. they always get me thinking. In my clients situation I think the most likely answer is actually number 5.. basically she needs to be more patient. Slow fat loss does not mean you are at maintenance. If you are lean, it means you don’t have much more fat to lose at this point fat loss WILL slow.
The only positive is that when you are very lean (photo shoot or comp prep) even losing 0.5lbs of fat is going to show.