Chronic conditions are extremely prevalent in the United States. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the CDC, more than half of American adults ages 18 to 34 years old are dealing with at least one chronic condition!
Unfortunately, some of the most common chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, depression, and cancer, can have a huge negative impact on your quality of life.
Conversations about preventing chronic conditions tend to focus on maintaining a certain weight or BMI. But another proactive way that you can potentially reduce your vulnerability to these diseases is by managing your body composition!
Your body composition can be a factor in whether or not you develop some chronic conditions.
In this article, you’ll learn how improving your body composition can lessen your risk of developing several common chronic diseases.
5 Ways That Improving Your Body Composition Can Decrease Your Risk For Chronic Conditions
1. Improves insulin sensitivity
The first way that improving your body composition can decrease your risk for chronic conditions is through its positive effects on your insulin sensitivity.
Glucose is a broken-down carbohydrate molecule that your cells use for energy, and insulin is an important hormone because it is responsible for shuttling glucose to your cells.
Unfortunately, high levels of body fat have been linked to insulin resistance, which means that your cells allow less glucose into your cells.
As a result, glucose remains in your bloodstream, leading to elevated blood sugar levels. If this goes on for too long, you may acquire Type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome.
As you can see, your body fat percentage definitely plays a role here. But perhaps even more interestingly, there is evidence that the place where you accumulate your fat tissue may be more important than your total fat levels!
Abdominal obesity, or the fat tissue that accumulates around your midsection, is especially pertinent when it comes to your risk of insulin resistance.
Researchers have found that high levels of abdominal fat may increase the release of free fatty acids and signal molecules called adipokines, which can increase your risk for chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The good news is, there’s plenty of evidence that improving your body composition can help you manage your blood sugar levels. A more balanced body composition can even contribute to a healthier metabolism!
Some of the most obvious body composition-related improvements to your health come from losing fat. Take this study that evaluated how body composition improvements (from exercise or a reduced-calorie diet) could impact participants’ insulin resistance.
The researchers found that either exercise or reduced calorie intake could be comparably effective for improving insulin resistance. These improvements were linked to changes in body weight, total fat mass, and visceral fat volume.
Your muscle mass can play an important role in your health as well, which is why looking at your body composition instead of your weight or BMI alone can be beneficial.
A study that evaluated the insulin resistance of 132 healthy adults found that, in male subjects, having more lean muscle mass was associated with greater insulin sensitivity, independent of the subjects’ fat tissue.
Another study on Korean adults found that participants with higher muscle and lower fat body compositions had significantly lower insulin resistance than those with low muscle and low fat levels.
So in order to manage your insulin resistance, you may need to focus on both your body fat and your muscle mass — or in other words, focus on body recomposition.
2. Decreases chronic inflammation
Another important way that your body composition can affect your risk of chronic conditions is through inflammation.
Inflammation is a normal response that your immune system conducts to keep you healthy. When it detects an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous invader like a bacteria or virus, your immune system increases blood flow to the infection site.
Your white blood cells then release chemicals that “attack” the invader, ultimately keeping you healthy and safe from harm.
Unfortunately, under certain conditions, inflammation can also become chronic. In these cases, your body may have inappropriate inflammatory reactions even in the absence of an actual threat, which means that your immune system can begin attacking your body’s own tissues.
Chronic inflammation is linked to a wide array of serious health issues, including diabetes, heart disease, inflammatory arthritis cancer, gastrointestinal disorders, and metabolic syndrome.
A high body weight tends to be one of the most prevalent risk factors talked about when it comes to inflammatory diseases, but another promising method for lowering inflammation is through managing your body composition.
Consider the “BMI paradox.” It’s been observed that overweight people are more likely to develop cancer but also have lower mortality rates. Researchers have found that this phenomenon may have more to do with their body composition than their weight alone.
Having more muscle mass seems to offer more protection than fat tissue, which is linked to higher inflammation (as well as other chronic disease risk factors, such as insulin resistance and higher cholesterol levels).
Why? There is some evidence that fat tissue, especially the visceral fat tissue found deep in your abdomen, can be inflammatory.
In fact, the state of obesity itself is considered chronic low-grade inflammation, since it is associated with several inflammatory markers, likely due to excess fat tissue.
In addition to metabolic and cancer-related chronic illnesses, your body composition can also play a role in other chronic conditions.
For example, inflammation is associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a chronic inflammatory lung disease that can block your airways and make it hard to breathe.
Researchers have found that low muscle mass is linked with systemic inflammation.
Ultimately, having a lower body fat mass and a higher muscle mass may protect you from chronic inflammation, which can give you better protection from a huge array of chronic conditions.
3. Improves cholesterol levels and blood pressure
Did you know that your body composition can heavily influence your heart health, through its effects on your cholesterol levels and blood pressure?
Cholesterols are fatty substances that are produced in your liver and travel through your bloodstream. They perform various roles in your body, like helping you to digest fat-soluble vitamins and building important hormones.
There are several kinds of cholesterol. Two of the most important are low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).
LDL is sometimes considered the “bad” kind of cholesterol, because it sticks to the sides of your arteries as it travels through your bloodstream. HDL, on the other hand, can carry excess cholesterol away from your organs, which is why it’s known as the “good” kind of cholesterol.
When someone has high cholesterol levels (especially high levels of LDL and lower levels of HDL), cholesterol may adhere to the sides of your arteries and develop into plaque. This plaque can then harden, making it more difficult for your heart to pump blood to all the places it needs to be delivered to. Eventually, this can contribute to high blood pressure (hypertension), which increases your risk of cardiac events like heart attacks and strokes, ultimately affecting your heart health for the worse.
Your body composition may play a major role in how cholesterol impacts you.
Research has found that obesity can actually change the way that your body metabolizes fats, which is linked to its promotion of insulin resistance. This can cause your body to produce more LDL and less HDL, contributing to issues with your heart health.
However, you can lower your risk or reduce the severity of your current heart issues by improving your body composition.
For example, a study on older adults found that reductions in fat mass of approximately 1 kg predicted a reduction in triglyceride levels, which are another type of fat that can be found in your bloodstream and fat tissue.
Similarly, the study also found that gaining lean muscle mass led to improved triglyceride levels.
4. Strengthens bones
Because your muscle tissue and bone mass are so closely interlinked, increasing your muscle mass can protect your bones, which is great for reducing your risk of chronic bone conditions like osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.
This link between your bone health and muscle mass seems to start in childhood, with studies finding that the body composition of children and adolescents significantly influences their development of bone mineral density early in life, and that higher body fat percentages seem to negatively affect bone acquisition.
This finding may be especially relevant to older adults, as your bone density tends to decrease as you get older.
Because bone mass and muscle mass are so closely linked, there’s evidence that older populations that are prone to bone diseases like osteoporosis may benefit from resistance training programs that improve these body composition metrics.
5. Better mental health
Finally, improving your body composition may also do a world of good for your mental health! In addition to physical health issues, mental illnesses like depression are among some of the most prevalent chronic conditions.
This may in part be due to an association between higher-risk body composition metrics and lower physical activity levels. For example, a 2020 study found that less physical activity, higher body fat mass, and lower muscle mass all were associated with stronger depression severity.
There may also be a link between behavior and the gut microbiome, or the microbes that live in your gut, since they play a variety of roles in your body, including regulating your moods and behavior via the microbiota-gut-brain axis.
In the same vein, some researchers believe that improving your gut microbiome diversity can influence factors that play a role in your body composition, such as insulin sensitivity!
However, more research needs to be done to determine the exact links between body composition, the gut microbiome, and mental health.
The bottom line: it’s important to note that body composition hasn’t been proven to be a cause of chronic mood and mental disorders like depression.
Instead, there’s some evidence that points to the idea that the actions you take to improve your body composition, such as exercising more frequently, can help reduce your mental illness risks and/or severity.
Chronic conditions are serious health concerns that can alter one’s quality of life and even shorten your lifespan.
While there are several factors that can contribute to your risk for chronic conditions, such as genetics and age, one proactive way that you can manage your risk is to improve your body composition, by focusing on gaining lean muscle mass and reducing your body fat.