If I asked you what your skeletal muscles do you'd probably say that they give you strength, stability and your ability to move - or something like that. And you'd be right. But that's only part of the picture. Skeletal muscles have another lesser-known and incredibly cool function.
Your skeletal muscles are also secretory organs. What does that mean? Good question. When you move, you contract your muscles. And when you contract your skeletal muscles, they produce and secrete healing proteins called myokines that travel through your bloodstream to your brain and other body organs. Myokines are naturally occurring biochemicals that play a pivotal role in protecting and enhancing your physical and mental health.
The word ‘myokine’ is derived from two Greek words, ‘myo’ and ‘kinesis.’
‘myo’ = muscle
‘kinesis’ = movement
We’ve long known that exercise protects against diseases as varied as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer, to name a few. And we know that it helps with bodily processes as wildly different as immunity, digestion, bone strength, and fat metabolism. And let’s not forget the mental health benefits of exercise, particularly on memory, depression and anxiety. Our understanding that exercise is beneficial isn’t new. It’s been clear all along that when muscles contract, something good happens to every other system in the body. Myokines explain what that something good is and how it works.
Whenever you walk, dance, bike, play soccer, lift weights, run, practice yoga, roller skate, play frisbee, or work in the garden, you contract your muscles, producing and releasing healing myokines into your bloodstream. Myokines then make their way to myokine receptors located in your fat, liver, pancreas, bones, heart, brain cells, and the muscles themselves.
Your muscles act like an incredible self-replenishing medicine chest. Take that in--a self-replenishing medicine chest. I’ll wait…
As we shall see, myokines exert their influence on everything from brain function to bone formation, from muscle growth to tumour growth and more. And all you have to do to access this incredible natural resource is move! Our understanding of myokines—how they are made and how they impact our health expands and influences our understanding of the role of movement, muscle, and fitness in our lives.
THE HUMAN BODY IS DESIGNED TO MOVE!
A basic principle of biology is that structure dictates function.
If you look at the basic structure of the human body, one of the things you’ll notice is that your musculoskeletal system is the largest and most obvious thing about you. It gives you your distinctly human shape. It also gives you strength, stability, and the ability to move. Your body contains an impressive 200+ bones, 300+ joints, and 600+ skeletal muscles. Muscle is the largest tissue in your body. Skeletal muscle makes up about 30 – 40% of your total body mass. Your bones make up another 15%. This suggests that your musculoskeletal system is super important and that humans are designed to move. We rely on movement for our survival.
Even though we can meet via Tinder and Bumble, you still have to move through the world to meet and woo a potential mate to ensure the survival of our species. In the millennia before Skip the Dishes, you would have relied on movement to forage or hunt for food and to ensure that you didn’t become food for a predator, yet you still have to answer the door, reach for the dishes and clean up after yourself. Nature, in her infinite wisdom, wired you so you’d be rewarded by movement. Movement allows you to survive and satiate yourself. But you’re also rewarded for moving by flooding your body with healing myokines. Our changing landscape means that today you have to consciously seek out movement to get access to your self-replenishing medicine chest.
Friends, you were designed to move—and your body and mind function best when you do. There is healing power in movement!
YOUR INNATE HEALING POWERS!
Hundreds of different types of myokines have been identified, and there are, no doubt, more to be discovered! They go by names like BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) and LIF (leukemia inhibitory factor), which clue you into their effects. But you don’t need to know any of their names or a medical degree to understand how Myokines can benefit your health. We’ve touched on their benefits, but let’s explore this topic a little more.
Myokines promote muscle growth and improve body composition. They regulate fat metabolism and change where your body stores fat—from abdomen to subcutaneous. Abdominal fat is associated with a variety of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, breast cancer, and more.
The magic of movement and the release of Myokines is:
DON’T LET YOUR MUSCLES GO TO WASTE!
Now that you understand the pivotal role that muscle and myokines play in your overall health, it’s probably pretty clear why movement matters and why you need to maintain muscle mass. Muscle wasting can occur for many reasons, some of them controllable (how much you move) and some of them not (neurological problems). People commonly lose muscle mass because they simply don’t use their muscles enough—which is 100% fixable. It’s also true that as you age, your body composition changes. As early as your 30s or 40s, muscle mass appears to progressively decline over time. This age-related loss of muscle mass is called sarcopenia. Decreased strength and an increase in fatty mass go hand-in-hand with sarcopenia. Since muscle is the source of your miraculous myokines, losing muscle mass isn’t ideal. From a functional standpoint, reduced muscle mass, strength, and power result in reduced mobility, quality of life, and the capacity to recover from illness as you age. From a mental health standpoint reduced muscle mass can also give us the blues.
Luckily, there’s a simple solution. You can counteract sarcopenia with strength training. Sarcopenia is muscle wasting, and strength training is muscle building. It’s a simple enough equation. And no matter how old you are, you are never too old to start. I’ve seen clients in their 90s make gains. Yoga utilizes your body’s own weight to strengthen your body, making it cost-effective and aligned with the efficiency and effectiveness of human design. Movement is your birthright. We’ve been moving since we crawled out of the womb. You don’t need the latest clothing, shoes, or workout gadgets to get started. If you’re a yoga lover, like me, it’s also helpful to supplement your yoga habit with resistance bands, weights, and other movement styles that challenge your strength in different ways. Just make sure you get your doctor’s blessing to begin an exercise program and work with a qualified professional.
When you move, you set off a beautiful cascade of healing biochemistry that benefits your body and mind. Your muscles aren’t just there to move you from house to car to couch to bed. Muscles are your hidden healing power.
Muscle-Organ Crosstalk: The Emerging Role of Myokines
Exercise-Induced Myokinens in Health and Metabolic Diseases
Proof That The Human Body Was Made To Move
Stanford Psychologist Reveals Why Movement is Medicine
Amanda Tripp, Yoga/body nerd and woman of a 1000 opinions