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Muscle Memory “Banked” in Youth Survives into Old Age

Midlife Not Too Late to Start Physical Activity

When I picked up my father’s barbell for the first time in the fifth grade, I had no idea that I was setting the ground work for doing well many years later.

Joseph F. Signorile, PhD, a highly regarded professor of exercise physiology at the University of Miami, suggested as much in Bending the Aging Curve (Human Kinetics, 2011). In that landmark book, he recalled the advertising slogan of the Castrol oil company that you could spend a few dollars to change your oil now or you could spend a few thousand dollars later to change your engine. It’s the corporate version of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Bending the Aging Curve includes many tables and graphs, but the one that sums up the message best is a graph showing 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 capacity of exercise to bend the aging curve is breathtaking.

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 decline is exponential. 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.

Now, we have a research paper by University of Massachusetts Professor of Biology Lawrence M. Schwartz, published January 25, 2019, in Frontiers of Physiology, telling us that nuclei—the cell control centers that build and maintain muscle fibers—persist even when muscle cells shrink due to disuse or start to break down.

“In summary,” Professor Schwartz wrote at the end of his long and detailed paper, “while the addition of new nuclei with muscle growth is largely accepted, the apoptotic loss of nuclei with atrophy cannot be supported, suggesting that strict interpretation of the myonuclear domain hypothesis cannot be supported. Instead, it appears that once acquired, myonuclei persist even when a muscle becomes atrophic or initiates cell death.”

That suggests that we can “bank” nuclei in our youth to help prevent frailty in old age. The benefits of training in youth appear to even more consequential than we thought.

Down for the Count—Responsive to Challenge

Two independent studies—one in rodents and the other in insects—have demonstrated that nuclei are not lost from atrophied muscle fibers, and even remain after muscle death has been initiated,” Professor Schwartz told Science Daily.  

Schwartz says the new findings came as no surprise to him.

"Muscles get damaged during extreme exercise, and often have to weather changes in food availability and other environmental factors that lead to atrophy. They wouldn't last very long giving up their nuclei in response to every one of these insults."

*  *  *

Modern lab techniques have allowed exercise physiologists to probe deeper into the bowels of aged muscles cells—finding nuclei alive and responsive.

Muscle growth is accompanied by the addition of new nuclei from stem cells to meet the demands of larger muscle cells—and it has been assumed that the new components die when a muscle atrophies due to disuse. It now appears that the dying nuclei other researchers had detected “were in fact inflammatory and other cells recruited to atrophic muscle.”

Since nuclei are the growth engine of muscle fibers, retaining them should enable muscle size and strength to recover more quickly when stimulated, and help to explain the phenomenon of muscle memory.

That finding has important implications, Professor Schwartz emphasized.

"Informing public health policy, the discovery that [nuclei] are retained indefinitely emphasizes the importance of exercise in early life. During adolescence muscle growth is enhanced by hormones, nutrition and a robust pool of stem cells, making it an ideal period for individuals to "bank" [nuclei] that could be drawn upon to remain active in old age."

"It is well documented in the field of exercise physiology that it is far easier to reacquire a certain level of muscle fitness through exercise than it was to achieve it the first place, even if there has been a long intervening period of detraining,” Schwartz continued. “In other words, the phrase ‘use it or lose it’ might be more accurately articulated as ‘use it or lose it, until you work at it again’."

For full details, you can read the entire review paper online: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2018.01887

Never Too Late

Talk about shifting gears, like moving the field of play from a CrossFit gym to the fitness center in a retirement community. We have surprisingly good news for those who become physically active in middle age.

A study based on data from an AARP survey found that benefits were similar whether leisure-time physical activity was maintained throughout life or started in midlife.

Pedro F. Saint-Maurice, PhD, from the National Cancer Institute and colleagues reported in the March 8, 2019, JAMA Network Open that those who exercised at the highest level throughout life had 36% lower all-cause mortality risk than those who never exercised—and that those who started exercising in midlife had 35% lower mortality risk.

"Our findings suggest that it is not too late for adults to become active. These findings are particularly informative for health care professionals advising individuals who have been physically inactive throughout much of their adulthood that substantial health benefits can still be gained by improving their physical activity habits."

You’ll find a detailed summary of the study in Medscape News: https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/910124

My Take

The Cancer Institute study tracks leisure-time physical activity, which is quite different than banking muscle memory. Muscle memory comes from challenging your muscles—especially the fast fibers—to grow bigger and stronger. Leisure-time activity, on the other hand, is any exercise beyond work duties or usual everyday tasks. Walking from the parking garage to your office doesn’t count, but taking a walk around the building during lunch break does.

Challenging your fast-twitch fibers in your teen years—and continuing to do so throughout your life—puts you at the top of the aging curve Professor Signorile talks about—and keeps you there. On the other hand, making leisure-time physical activities part of your life at 40 substantially lowers your risk of dying. But it is not likely to put and keep you at the top of the aging curve.

Both forms of exercise are good, putting you well ahead of your sedentary peers. But pushing your limits throughout life has you soaring above the crowd in every decade of life. It does what Dr. Kenneth Cooper calls “square the aging curve.” Helps you live long and well—and die without a long period of decline.

Jack LaLanne is the quintessential example. He titled the autobiography he released at 95 “Living Young Forever.” https://www.cbass.com/JackLaLanne.htm

He died the following year--at home. He was 96.

It’s up to you, something you can do for yourself. No doctor or drug can do it for you. Self-help is the most powerful tool in life’s tool box.

May 1, 2019

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