NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - We hear over and over that exercise is good for the body but scientists do not know the basis for the benefits of exercise and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center is part of a National Institutes of Health study to find out why.
"It’s like for medication, you need to know what medication is working for who said Eric Ravussin, PhD., one of the principal investigators at Pennington involved in the study.
The NIH study is probing what happens at the molecular level when people exercise to produce health benefits.
"That’s really identifying biomarkers and a biomarker is, you know, you have a biomarker, you go to the doctor he tells you, you have diabetes because your blood sugar is too high. Blood sugar is a biomarker,” said Ravussin. “We are looking at biomarkers of response.”
Across the country, 23 institutions are involved in the research called, the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium or MoTrPAC.
"We know that different parts of the body talk to each other during exercise but we don’t know what their language is,” said NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins.
Pennington is one of the institutions conducting clinical trials as part of the study.
“I think this is a landmark study. We all know that in general, that physical activity is good for your health...but now there are some people that benefit a lot from physical activity and some less,” said Ravussin.
On a fall day, Paige Menier hopped on a stationary bicycle at the fitness center on the Pennington campus. She is one of the 300 plus participants in Pennington’s portion of the research. In all, more than 2,000 people are taking part in the study nationwide.
"Every once in a while I would exercise some but I would always fall off the wagon,” said Menier.
Menier’s lack of commitment to working out made her perfect for the study which intentionally has more participants who do not exercise regularly.
As part of the research, Menier is working out for an hour, three days a week.
"I have a heart rate band around my chest,” said Menier as she exercised.
As Menier worked out critical data was transmitted to computer and monitored by Phillip Nauta, a research specialist at Pennington.
"So, if you see here, this is Paige’s heart rate, currently. So as she is increasing her intensity her heart rate will increase with that exercise and then the number to the right is her breathing rate,” Nauta said, as he pointed to a computer monitor.
Menier later switched to a treadmill, another part of her tailored regimen. She said she now looks forward to working out.
"I actually started craving it after a couple of sessions. Definitely hungrier,” Menier said.
While some participants in the study do endurance exercises, others do resistance training.
"Those particular participants will do anything from chest press to leg press, overhead press, leg extensions, hitting all the major muscle groups three days a week as well,” Nauta said.
As part of the program, some participants don’t do either form of exercise. And as part of the research there will be a comparison with a group of highly active individuals who work out regularly. But Ravussin says changing how study participants eat is not part of the equation.
"We don’t want to mix the two here. We just tell them, continue your regular diet and we want to see the effect of physical activity and the physical training,” Ravussin said. “And we are going to look before and after 12 weeks of training at what are the changes in these people in terms of these molecular transducers, or these biomarkers of health.”
The research also involves collecting samples from some participants.
"It’s blood, it’s your skeletal muscle tissue, we take muscle biopsies, it’s your adipose tissue, we take,” said Ravussin. The samples could provide valuable information for the researchers. "In other words, can we identify from your blood, from your skin, from your saliva, from your genes, of course, identify those who are going to benefit from one kind of exercise, or from another kind, or the combination of the two kinds, etc.,” Ravussin stated.
It is an area science is not up to speed on, yet.
"If you ask me, what kind of exercise should I do, should I run, should I lift weights, I don’t know, but with this information and by measuring these biomarkers I will be able to tell you, the best prescription for you is one day of, you know, treadmill, or walking in the park, another day of weight-lifting and so on,” Ravussin stated.
Menier, who works in the medical field is thrilled to help researchers find answers that could further what’s called, precision exercise medicine.
"It feels good to know that I might be helping future generations,” she said.
Because knowing why certain exercises benefit some people and not others could help health care providers individualize programs to improve health.
“I think this kind of study is going to give us some clues, in terms of personalizing the prescription,” Ravussin said. “One size does not fit all.”
Researchers involved in the MoTrPac consortium hope to create a comprehensive map of molecular responses to exercise and the relation to health.