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“The athletes had about 14 percent more total muscle mass than the control group. More interesting to the researchers, the athletes also had almost 30 percent more motor units in their leg muscle tissue, and these units were functioning better than those of people in the sedentary group.” Gretchen Reynolds, The New York Times (March 30, 2016)

Study Confirms Neuromuscular Advantage of Those Who Train into 80s and 90s

Second Study Says One Minute All-Out May Suffice

Exercise helps keep us youthful throughout life.

We began to focus on the neuromuscular advantage of those who exercise with the publication of Professor Joseph Signorile’s book Bending the Aging Curve (2011). Signorile provided a backdrop which helps us understand and evaluate an exciting new study from McGill University. A second study from McMaster University looks at the effort required to keep our muscles fully functional.

Bending the Aging Curve shows the neuromuscular aging curves for the untrained person, for the person who starts exercising at about 40, and finally the trajectory of men and women who have been exercising their entire life. The differences are stunning.

The loss of neuromuscular function for untrained individuals begins in earnest at about 40 and drops more and more rapidly with each passing decade. The person who begins exercising at 40 shows a relatively flat curve until about 60, and then begins a slow decline. The lifelong exerciser, however, soars above the others at every decade of life. The regular exerciser will have a curve that begins at a much higher level than the other two—and stays there. The inevitable decline that does occur leaves the 75-year-old lifelong exerciser at a level equivalent to an untrained person at 20. At 90, the lifelong trainer is at a level equivalent to an untrained person 30 years younger.

As we age we not only have smaller but also fewer muscle fibers.

Slow-twitch fibers are small, and fast-twitch fibers are large. The slow-twitch fibers are the endurance fibers, and the fast-twitch fibers are the strength fibers. Most of us are born with a roughly equal balance of slow/small and fast/large fibers.

“As we age, the motor units that we lose are mainly the fast-twitch variety,” Signorile writes. “The slow-twitch fibers show practically no change.”

So, the loss of muscle size and function with age is virtually all due to shrinkage and death of fast-twitch fibers. Translated to the activities of everyday life, this means the untrained person becomes slower and weaker with age. Independence suffers over time.

It’s a dismal picture, but we can keep our fast-twitch fibers alive and well with high-intensity exercise and to a lesser degree traditional aerobic exercise.

For more details on the importance of resistance training, intensity, and other related matters, see my commentary on Dr. Signorile's book: http://www.cbass.com/BendingTheAgingCurve.htm

Researchers Compare World-Class Master Athletes to Sedentary Peers  

The new study from McGill University in Canada, led by Geoffrey A. Power and published March 24, 2016, in the Journal of Applied Physiology, compared the neuromuscular condition of 29 world-class male and female track and field athletes with a group of healthy but relatively inactive peers.

"These are individuals in their 80s and 90s who actively compete in world masters track and field championships,” Power (now an assistant professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario) told Science Daily. “We have seven world champions. These individuals are the crème de la crème of aging."

What they found is encouraging to be sure, but perhaps short of what is possible. There are two concepts to keep in mind while assessing the study and perhaps planning your own approach.

Muscle fibers respond in order of size, from small/slow to large/fast. Event specialties ranged from sprint and power events to middle and long distance running events (800m up to marathon). That’s noteworthy because strength athletes and sprinters challenge both slow and fast fibers, while endurance athletes rely mainly on the slow fibers. For more about the size principle and muscle fiber activation: http://www.cbass.com/Carpinelli.htm

Secondly, some of the athletes didn’t start serious training until in their 50s. As noted above, people who begin training late in life rarely if ever catch up with lifetime trainers.

Nothing works, of course, unless you enjoy it and are willing to continue doing it. You also have to avoid crippling yourself.

The limits of what’s possible are still to be explored. That said, here’s proof that continuing to challenge your physical capacity makes a huge difference.

Power and his colleagues found that the master athletes were stronger and have substantially more muscle mass and functioning motor units than age-matched sedentary controls.

The athletes were 25% stronger on average and had 14% more total muscle mass. They also had almost 30% more motor units (muscle fiber and motor nerve) in their leg muscles. What’s more, the nerve impulses in the leg muscles of the sedentary controls had more “jitter and jiggle,” signaling weak and dying motor units. Simply put, the athletes had more—and more stable and powerful—motor units than their sedentary peers.

Dr. Power says the “secret” is superb fitness. He told Gretchen Reynolds that most of the athletes in their study train intensely for several hours every week. That’s laudable, but may not be necessary for those primarily interested in maintaining muscle function. Competitive athletes have to practice their sport, but you can do what serves you best. To read the entire study: http://jap.physiology.org/content/early/2016/03/21/japplphysiol.00149.2016

Researchers from McMaster University in Canada have found that minutes rather than hours will build and maintain neuromuscular function. 

One Minute of All-Out Effort May Do the Job

Professor Martin Gibala, a highly-regarded researcher from McMaster University in Canada, could be called the Godfather of high-intensity interval training for those who want to stay strong and healthy in a time efficient manner. A decade ago (2005), his team reported that about two minutes of very intense exercise produced the same or better results than previously shown after two hours a day at about 65% of VO2max. In other words, 15 minutes of high-intensity exercise spread over 2 weeks had the same effect as 20 hours of moderate exercise over the same period of time.

Calling it a “documented first,” Edward Coyle, professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas, wrote that the study “serves as a dramatic reminder of the potency” of intense exercise to improve performance and health. “In fact, the low-intensity aerobic exercise that is typically prescribed for endurance training or health is not very effective at increasing aerobic activity in [fast twitch] muscle fibers, which comprise approximately one-half of the fibers within the muscles of most people,” he continued. “Low-intensity aerobic training is not a very effective or efficient method for maximizing aerobic adaptation in skeletal muscle because it generally does not recruit [fast twitch] fibers.” For full details: http://www.cbass.com/Sprintendurance.htm

Now, Gibala is back with a study showing that a single minute of very intense cycling improved cardiometabolic function to the same extent as 45 minutes of traditional endurance training. Including a 2-minute warm-up and 3-minute cool down in both protocols, the time difference is 10 minutes versus 50 minutes.

The study (published April 26, 2016, in PLOS ONE) assigned 25 sedentary men to perform three weekly sessions of either intense (9) or moderate training (10) for 12 weeks, or to a control group (6) that did not exercise. The sprint interval training (SIT) protocol included three 20-second all-out cycle sprints with two minutes of easy cycling between efforts, while the traditional training group cycled 45-minutes continuously at a moderate pace.

The researchers had previously shown that the 10-minute SIT protocol used here was as effective as a longer (20-30 minutes) SIT protocol including four to six 30-second all-out sprints, interspersed with 4 minutes of recovery. No study, however, had compared the effectiveness of the very brief SIT to traditional endurance training for a wide range of fitness and health factors. That was the aim of the new study.

Gibala and his team predicted that one minute of all-out effort would improve fitness and health as much as 45 minutes of moderate exercise.

They were not disappointed. 

In summary, we report that a SIT protocol involving 3 minutes of intense intermittent exercise per week, within a total time commitment of 30 minutes, is as effective as 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT) for increasing insulin sensitivity, cardiorespiratory fitness and skeletal muscle mitochondrial content in previously inactive men. This investigation represents the longest comparison of SIT and MICT to date and demonstrates the efficacy of brief, intense exercise to improve indices of cardiometabolic health. While SIT is clearly a potent stimulus to elicit physiological adaptations, this type of exercise requires a very high level of motivation and is clearly not suited for everyone.

Both exercise groups improved by nearly 20 percent, roughly the same as the gap between the world-class master athletes and their sedentary peers in the McGill University study.

More fitness and better health at any age, for only one minute of all-out (or 45 minutes moderate) effort three times a week! (See below for my thoughts on improving the sprint protocol.)

Gibala interprets the finding for use by anyone with a modicum of motivation: “The basic principles apply to many forms of exercise,” he told Science News. “Climbing a few flights of stairs on your lunch hour can provide a quick and effective workout. The health benefits are significant.”

“You can get big benefits from even a single minute of intense exercise,” Gibala told New York Times science-fitness writer Gretchen Reynolds. Pick the method or methods you like best. Use your imagination and you’ll find a way to work short sprints into your day. If there’s a will there’s a way.

You can read the entire study online: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0154075

My Take

When doing three or more sprint intervals, its human nature to hold back early-on so you can go all-out on the final rep. The researchers are speaking to that tendency when they point out that this type of exercise requires a very high level of motivation. Very few people are willing to go all-out on every sprint interval. That’s one reason why the Gibala team split the minute of all-out effort into 20 second segments, with two minutes of recovery between reps.

I reverse that by extending the all-out effort to a single minute-long sprint—eliminating the incentive to hold back. I warm up for two minutes, walk around for a short time to get my mind right—and then do one minute all-out. I then repeat with another form of exercise, rotating the order from week to week. I end with about a minute of cool down. That’s it—a direct hit on the all-important fast-twitch fibers. That means challenging every muscle fiber, from slow to fast.

 Functional muscle mass promotes health from head to toe.
Photo by Pat Berrett, age 60

Well-conditioned muscle mass drives metabolism. Your muscles “talk” to every organ in your body. For more details: http://www.cbass.com/MuscleTalk.htm 

If you really go all-out for a full minute, you won’t want to do more. My experience is that all-out effort can be sustained for about a minute. Go longer and you have to begin pacing yourself.

I stay active during the week, but don’t do another all-out sprint until the next week. Keep that up and you’ll be amazed at the effort you can generate. (I also do a weight workout during the week between sprint sessions.)

As Dr. Gibala says, this can be done with many forms of exercise. I’ve done it on the Concept 2 rower, the Concept 2 Ski Erg, and on the Schwinn Airdyne. The common denominators are that all three exercise machines work the whole body, arms and legs, and have good performance monitors. The C2 machines have a superb monitor and the Airdyne an adequate monitor. That’s very important because all-out effort without a specific goal doesn’t stay all-out for long. The monitors allows you to accurately measure progress. When you are no longer able to improve, it’s time to change what you’re doing. Failure breeds failure and should be avoided. You need to set yourself up for success, because success breeds success.

The whole body advantage is also extremely important. Only the muscles worked benefit. The stationary cycles used in the Gibala study only work the legs, leaving the upper body unworked and undeveloped. Working only the legs simplifies research, but working the whole body is a far more productive form of exercise.

When progress stalls you can change to another form of exercise—or you can lengthen the work period. On the rower and ski erg I usually go to a 600 meter sprint, and work back down to a minute. I strive to top my best efforts as I move from 600 meters to 400 and back to one minute. (I’ve experimented with 100 meters, but found the fast starts a prescription for injury, with the lower back and shoulders being the most vulnerable.)

Gibala and his team focus on the vast pool of people who don’t exercise regularly. I’m speaking to those who have been training for some time, and need a way to keep progressing and stay motivated. Without tangible progress, motivation soon evaporates for the vast majority of people.

People new to training should take their time and build up slowly to the kind of effort required to make interval training effective over time. You also must focus on proper form, because the danger of injury grows with degree of intensity.

Those who are new to exercise should consult with their health care provider before embarking on an exercise regimen. Start slowly and ratchet up your training little by little. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Build on success—avoid failure—and you’ll be amazed what you can achieve. Keep training and you’ll never be sorry.

June 1, 2016

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