Body muscle gain and markers of cardiovascular disease susceptibility in young adulthood: A cohort study

Joshua A Bell*, Kaitlin H Wade, Linda Marie O'Keefe, David J Carslake, Emma E Vincent, Michael V Holmes, Nicholas John Timpson, George Davey Smith

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
40 Downloads (Pure)


The potential benefits of gaining body muscle for cardiovascular disease (CVD) susceptibility, and how these compare with the potential harms of gaining body fat, are unknown. We compared associations of early life changes in body lean mass and handgrip strength versus body fat mass with atherogenic traits measured in young adulthood.

Methods and findings
Data were from 3,227 offspring of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (39% male; recruited in 1991–1992). Limb lean and total fat mass indices (kg/m2) were measured using dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry scans performed at age 10, 13, 18, and 25 y (across clinics occurring from 2001–2003 to 2015–2017). Handgrip strength was measured at 12 and 25 y, expressed as maximum grip (kg or lb/in2) and relative grip (maximum grip/weight in kilograms). Linear regression models were used to examine associations of change in standardised measures of these exposures across different stages of body development with 228 cardiometabolic traits measured at age 25 y including blood pressure, fasting insulin, and metabolomics-derived apolipoprotein B lipids. SD-unit gain in limb lean mass index from 10 to 25 y was positively associated with atherogenic traits including very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) triglycerides. This pattern was limited to lean gain in legs, whereas lean gain in arms was inversely associated with traits including VLDL triglycerides, insulin, and glycoprotein acetyls, and was also positively associated with creatinine (a muscle product and positive control). Furthermore, this pattern for arm lean mass index was specific to SD-unit gains occurring between 13 and 18 y, e.g., −0.13 SD (95% CI −0.22, −0.04) for VLDL triglycerides. Changes in maximum and relative grip from 12 to 25 y were both positively associated with creatinine, but only change in relative grip was also inversely associated with atherogenic traits, e.g., −0.12 SD (95% CI −0.18, −0.06) for VLDL triglycerides per SD-unit gain. Change in fat mass index from 10 to 25 y was more strongly associated with atherogenic traits including VLDL triglycerides, at 0.45 SD (95% CI 0.39, 0.52); these estimates were directionally consistent across sub-periods, with larger effect sizes with more recent gains. Associations of lean, grip, and fat measures with traits were more pronounced among males. Study limitations include potential residual confounding of observational estimates, including by ectopic fat within muscle, and the absence of grip measures in adolescence for estimates of grip change over sub-periods.

In this study, we found that muscle strengthening, as indicated by grip strength gain, was weakly associated with lower atherogenic trait levels in young adulthood, at a smaller magnitude than unfavourable associations of fat mass gain. Associations of muscle mass gain with such traits appear to be smaller and limited to gains occurring in adolescence. These results suggest that body muscle is less robustly associated with markers of CVD susceptibility than body fat and may therefore be a lower-priority intervention target.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1003751
JournalPLoS Medicine
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 9 Sept 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Bell et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Structured keywords

  • ICEP


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