Muscling in on the hard ‘cell’

Scientists may have found a way to halt muscle wastage in older people with a workout regime that involves interruptions which allow you to catch your breath.

The maxim that some things improve with age has been borne out with a study showing that, after certain exercises, muscle performance is significantly enhanced in older people compared with young ones.

A report in medical journal Cell Metabolism revealed that high-intensity exercise at intervals was better at boosting mitochondria – the part of the cell that produces energy for metabolism – than moderate exercise and weightlifting.  This process helps to build strength … no surprises there.

But the study comparing a young cohort with an older one revealed an astonishing result: if they did intermittent, vigorous exercise, older people improved their muscle function 50 per cent more than those half their age. Yet moderate exercise in the elderly was shown to have little impact on reversing muscle wastage.

Researchers at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic conducted the trial with 72 healthy but sedentary subjects aged either less than 30 or older than 64. They divided them into four groups and assigned each with either:

  • interval exercises: pedalling hard on a stationary bicycle for four minutes, resting for three and repeating the sequence three times  
  • moderate exercise: riding a stationary bicycle at a slower pace for 30 minutes and alternating on other days with light weightlifting
  • weightlifting: vigorous training
  • no exercise.

All candidates experienced improved fitness and better blood-sugar levels. Those who worked with weights grew the most muscle mass, but the interval exercisers had better endurance. And interestingly, older people’s mitochondria responded more vigorously under one regime.

Biopsies of muscle tissue found that older people who did interval training recorded enhanced activity levels in 400 genes, compared with 274 genes in younger people. Older weightlifters recorded changes in 33 genes versus 74 for younger subjects, and moderate exercise affected just 19 genes in seniors compared with 170 for juniors.

According to the study’s senior author, Dr Sreekumaran Nair: “It seems as if the decline in the cellular health of muscles associated with ageing was corrected with exercise, especially if it was intense.”

As we age, our cellular mitochondria deteriorates. From this study, we now know it is never too late to take up exercise in order to reverse this process. In fact, the older you are the more likely you will get better results with certain types of exercise.

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Written by Olga Galacho

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