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Basically, [our findings] explain parts of the reason why physical activity is healthy. The beauty is that muscle use, in and of itself, is what initiates the processes that keep muscles ‘up to date,’ healthy and functional: Professor Jørgen F. P. Wojtaszewski, Faculty of Science, University of Copenhagen.

Studies from Copenhagen and Stanford Uncover Benefits of Exercise at Molecular Level

When I was a teenager my mother, a registered nurse, bemoaned that I thought exercise was the cure for just about everything. I’ve now written 10 books and well over 700 articles on various aspects of that topic—and the proven benefits of exercise continue to grow exponentially.

We now have big picture studies from two prestigious universities exploring the benefits of exercise at the microscopic level, with results my mother would surely find heartening.

We’ll begin with the study published March 5, 2020, in The FASEB Journal by Benjamin L. Parker, Jørgen F. P. Wojtaszewski, and colleagues at the Universities of Copenhagen and Sydney, Australia.

First, the framework of the study:

Six healthy, untrained men ages 26-28 completed an intense 8-11 minute workout on a stationary bike. Blood tests and muscle biopsies were taken prior to and on completion of the training session. The biopsies were then studied using mass spectrometry.

Exercise Stimulates Renewal

They found that a single bout of exercise prompts a clean-up of muscles as the protein Ubiquitin tags onto worn-out proteins, causing them to be degraded. This prevents the accumulation of damaged proteins and paves the way for a build-up of new proteins.

"Muscles eliminate worn-out proteins in several ways," explains Professor Erik Richter of the Section for Molecular Physiology at University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports. "One of these methods is when Ubiquitin, the death-marker, tags a protein in question. Ubiquitin itself is a small protein. It attaches itself to the amino acid Lysine on worn-out proteins, after which the protein is transported to a Proteasome, which is a structure that gobbles up proteins and spits them out as amino acids. These amino acids can then be reused in the synthesis of new proteins. As such, Ubiquitin contributes to a very sustainable circulation of the body's proteins."

While extensive knowledge has been accumulated about how muscles regulate the build-up of new proteins during physical training, much less is known about how muscle contractions and exercise serve to significantly clean-up worn-out proteins. According to Professor Bente Kiens, another project participant: "The important role of Ubiquitin for 'cleaning-up' worn-out proteins in connection with muscular activity was not fully appreciated. Now we know that physical activity increases Ubiquitin tagging on worn-out proteins."

Professor Jørgen Wojtaszewski, a third Danish project participant, explains that their findings serve to strengthen the entire foundation for the effect of physical activity: "Basically, it explains part of the reason why physical activity is healthy. The beauty is that muscle use, in and of itself, is what initiates the processes that keep muscles 'up to date', healthy and functional."

Pretty amazing, huh Mom?

(Our access was limited to the study abstract, which was too specialized to be of much help. The above quotes and details come mainly from Science Daily, 28 May 2020.)

10-Minute Effort Moves 10,000 Molecules

Scientists from Stanford University School of Medicine undertook the unprecedented task of examining how each molecule in the body responds to exercise. “I had thought, it’s only about nine minutes of exercise, how much is going to change? A lot, as it turns out,” senior researcher and professor and chair of genetics Michael P. Snyder, PhD, told The New York Times.

“It was like a symphony,” he continued. “First you have a brass section coming in, then the strings, then all the sections joining in.”

They chose 36 people between ages 40 and 75, ranging from fit to overweight, and drew blood from them before and after topping out on an inclined treadmill, about 10 minutes. When all was said and done, an average of 9,815 molecules in their blood were altered.

Lead researcher Kevin Contrepois, PhD, director of metabolomics and lipidomics in the Department of Genetics, and colleagues summarized their findings in close to layman language:

Acute physical activity leads to several changes in metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune pathways. Although studies have examined selected changes in these pathways, the system-wide molecular response to an acute bout of exercise has not been fully characterized…Time-series analysis revealed thousands of molecular changes and an orchestrated choreography of biological processes involving energy metabolism, oxidative stress, inflammation, tissue repair, and growth factor response, as well as regulatory pathways…Finally, we discovered biological pathways involved in cardiopulmonary exercise response and developed prediction models revealing potential resting blood-based biomarkers of peak oxygen consumption.

And there’s more. Dig deeper and it gets better and better.

Exercise has a profound effect at the molecular level.

A simple blood test appears to provide more nuanced information on the body's response to exercise than the traditional stress test. Significantly, the researchers found that the participants who were most physically fit shared similar molecular signatures in their resting blood samples before exercise.

Could it be that treadmill and cycle ergometer stress tests are on the way out?

"All of these measurements allow us to describe a choreography of molecular events that occur after physical exercise," Snyder said. "We know that exercise causes an array of physiological responses, such as inflammation, metabolism and hormone fluctuation, but these measurements allowed us to characterize those changes in unprecedented detail."

It turns out that in the first two minutes post-exercise, the body experiences an intense flurry of molecular activity. In most participants, molecular markers of inflammation, tissue healing and oxidative stress, a natural byproduct of metabolism, spiked sharply shortly after hopping off the treadmill, as their bodies began to recover. Molecular markers of metabolism varied, Snyder said. At 2 minutes, blood samples revealed evidence that the body was metabolizing certain amino acids for energy, but it switched to metabolizing glucose, a type of sugar, around 15 minutes. "The body breaks down glycogen as part of its exercise recovery response, so that's why we see that spike a little later," Snyder said. Glycogen is a form of stored glucose.

You’ll find this and much more information in Science Daily, 28 May 2020: https://tinyurl.com/y89527o9

My Take

I believe these amazing studies would persuade my mother to feel more kindly toward her son’s belief in exercise as the cornerstone of healthy living.

I am dedicating this column to her memory.

I’ve made it a point to challenge all parts of my body.

Photo by Guy Appelman

July1, 2020

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