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Bodybuilding and Immunity

Muscle drives the immune system of mice and it may drive ours as well.

A study with mice, published June 12, 2020, in the journal Science Advances, is written for scientists. A piece about the study in Inverse (July 4, 2020) is in everyday language. They both explain how skeletal muscle can bolster the immune system.

“That’s because muscles can shelter certain types of T-cells and replenish immune system ranks when they become fatigued,” David Cox explains to Inverse readers.

First researcher Jingxia Wu, Cell Metabolism Group, German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg, Germany, and colleagues wrote: “CD8+ T cells become functionally impaired or ‘exhausted’ in chronic infections, accompanied by unwanted body weight reduction and muscle mass loss. Whether muscle regulates T cell exhaustion remains incompletely understood… [After investigation] we conclude that skeletal muscle antagonizes T cell exhaustion by protecting T cell proliferative potential from inflammation and replenishing the effector T cell progeny pool in lymphoid organs.”

The study shows that muscle drives immune function in mice—and muscle built and maintained in the gym may do the same thing.

* * *

I wrote about two earlier studies dealing with exercise and immune function: https://www.cbass.com/exerciseStopsAging.html

The first study, reported March 8, 2018, in the journal Aging Cell, zeroed in on the thigh muscles of 125 highly active male and female cyclists aged 55-79 years, who had maintained training volume of about 100 miles a week. None were competitive athletes.

“We conclude in this highly active cohort, selected to mitigate most of the effects of inactivity, that there is little evidence of age-related changes in the properties of the vastus lateralis muscle [the largest of the quads] across the age range studied,” the researchers wrote in summarizing their key finding. In short, exercise builds and preserves our thigh muscles.

The second study was about fitness, aging, and immunity.

“The immune system declines by about 2-3% a year from our 20s, which is why older people are more susceptible to infections, conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and potentially cancer,” senior author Janet Lord told BBC medical correspondent Fergus Walsh. “Because the cyclists have the immune system of a 20-year-old rather than a 70- or 80-year-old, it means they have added protection against all these issues.”

I end with a telling insight by New York Times health and fitness writer Gretchen Reynolds: “[She] brought out an important connection between the two studies. That muscle and immune function are interrelated. Muscles are one of the sources of the hormone that protects the thymus gland, which generates white blood cells that help the immune system fight illness.”

That brings us back to the new study on muscle, T-Cells, and immunity.

*  *  *

T-cells are part of the immune system and develop from stem cells in the bone marrow. They help protect the body from infection and may help fight cancer.

"It is known that T-cells are involved in the loss of skeletal muscle mass," co-author Guoliang Cui explains. "But whether and how, in turn, skeletal muscles influence the function of the T-cells is still unclear."

To answer this critical question, scientists infected a group of mice with a virus. This model is commonly used to study acute and chronic infections in mice.

"If the T-cells, which actively fight the infection, lose their full functionality through continuous stimulation, the precursor cells can migrate from the muscles and develop into functional T-cells," Jingxia Wu told Inverse writer David Cox.

When the immune system begins to give out, the T-cells in the muscles come to the rescue. More muscle means more healthy T-cells to beat back infections.

If the findings of Wu and colleagues are found in humans, not just mice, that could mean building and maintaining muscle keeps our immune system going strong.

For more details, you can read the entire study online: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/24/eaba3458

Inverse is also open access: https://www.inverse.com/mind-body/muscles-weightlifting-immune-system-fatigue

If quads are any indication, my immune system should be pretty good.

Photo by Carol Bass

Why wait for similar results in humans—when many benefits of strength training are already well known? Makes no sense.

Inverse agrees:

Even though we're waiting for human experiments to confirm the findings, it is still worth picking up a kettlebell. Strength training has a long list of benefits — on top of potentially boosting the immune system. It strengthens the nervous system, prevents bone loss, and increases flexibility as people age.

We also have the two studies I wrote about, showing that lifetime cyclists have young quads and the immune systems of a 20-year-old.

My Take

With COVID-19 trying hard to take down our seniors and stall the world’s best economy, it’s a great time to train your muscles. Lifetime trainers are way ahead of the game. Regular exercise, healthy eating, and purposeful living truly are the closest we’ll ever get to the Fountain of Youth.

The new study bolsters what I wrote earlier:

These studies make me feel good about every minute spent exercising. The Greeks had it right. Exercise IS the best medicine. The British researchers should be honored by the Queen. Take their advice and the British health care system might actually go into the black.

It would be helpful if more participants and forms of exercise were involved, and the whole body was analyzed. That’s a tall order. And not the biggest hurdle. 

The biggest problem is persuading people to become physically active. Doctors tell people to exercise or die—and they still won’t do it.

That’s just the way it is. The most promising approach is to help motivated people help themselves.

Professor Pollock’s advice is spot on: "Find an exercise that you enjoy in whatever environment that suits you and make a habit of physical activity.”

There’s more. Check it out: https://www.cbass.com/exerciseStopsAging.html

September 1, 2020

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 “We conclude in this highly active cohort, selected to mitigate most of the effects of inactivity, that there is little evidence of age-related changes in the properties of the vastus lateralis muscle across the age range studied,” the researchers wrote in summarizing their key finding