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The Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health’s (ISEH), Dr Snehal Pinto Pereira, and Professor Rachel Cooper (Manchester Metropolitan University) have co-led a research study that investigated how BMI over a lifetime is associated with strength in mid-life. This research was conducted in partnership with ISEH’s Prof. Mark Hamer and Dr David Tomlinson (Manchester Metropolitan University).

This important research was performed because we are living through an obesity epidemic, which means that more recently born generations have lived more of their lives in an obesogenic environment and so are more likely to have become overweight or obese at younger ages than current generations of older adults. Therefore, understanding how obesity is related to strength is crucial to give us clues about potential increases in the burden of age-related musculoskeletal conditions including sarcopenia and sarcopenic obesity. Handgrip strength was studied as this is a good indication of a person’s functional ability and is a good proxy for having the strength to undertake physical tasks of daily living.

In the study, the researchers examined data from over 7,500 people born in England, Scotland, and Wales during a single week in 1970 that have been followed from birth onwards. This is a rich data source – allowing the researchers to look at BMI at different ages, strength in mid-life and also enabling them to consider factors that can affect both BMI and strength, such as physical activity and socioeconomic position in childhood.

They found robust evidence that higher BMI from childhood onwards is associated with stronger grip in mid-life in both men & women. But importantly, there were clear sex differences; the scale of associations from age 16 years was greater, and there was more consistent evidence that associations were cumulative in men than women.

Dr Snehal Pinto Pereira said: “The relationship between obesity and strength over the life course is complex. We add new knowledge to this area by showing that higher BMI from childhood onwards is associated with greater strength in mid-life. This suggests that, in mid-life, the anabolic effects of fat on muscle are outweighing catabolic effects that could subsequently lead to sarcopenic obesity, especially among males.”

Professor Cooper commented and said: “Our findings suggest that midlife may represent an optimal time to intervene to prevent sarcopenic obesity in old age.”

Read the published paper in Wiley Online Library.