Flexing Muscles

Flexing Muscles

A pioneering study at the University of Illinois is combining imaging technology and clinical research to look at muscle quality in older women, and how diet and exercise can improve it.

Ellen Evans, a professor of kinesiology and community health, and John Georgiadis, a professor of mechanical engineering, are collaborating on the multidisciplinary research project -- an example of “translational research,” or research that can directly translate and be applied to everyday life.

They say using imaging technology to look at muscle quality and how to preserve it could do for obesity -- and the problems associated with it -- what bone imaging techniques have done for osteoporosis.

“We have an aging society. We have an obese society,” Evans said.

Combine those two things and you get people whose reduced physical abilities will make it hard for them to remain independent in their later years.

“How you treat that clinically is not well-established,” Evans said. “That is going to be a serious public health issue.”

The study -- funded by a three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health -- is using MRI scans to assess muscle quality and look at the composition and arrangement of muscle tissues.

The researchers are assessing women ages 60 to 80 who are normal weight and either active or sedentary, and obese women who are sedentary.

Each will receive: a full body scan to determine the amount of muscle, fat tissue and bone mass; an MRI scan to assess muscle and fat in the thigh; a blood test to determine glucose, insulin and cholesterol levels; and balance and strength tests to measure lower body function and balance.

The MRI scan will reveal the direction of the muscle fibers and how they are packed together, as well as the amount of fat stored in muscle fiber.

“A well-trained, healthy muscle is well-organized with those fibers,” Evans said. “With a de-conditioned, fatty muscle, they are less organized.”

That means the muscle has less power, which affects how easily someone can do daily activities such as getting up out of a chair. The balance and strength tests will measure that, as well as how people perform tasks such as taking a coat on and off, picking up a penny, lifting a book up onto a shelf, walking quickly and avoiding obstacles.

Then half the women in the obese group will do a weight loss program, with a target weight loss of 10 percent over six months. The other half will do an exercise program, working with a trainer in small
groups three days per week, doing both aerobic exercise and strength training.

The muscle quality of the women in both groups will be assessed again after they complete the programs.

“A big debate in public health is fitness versus fatness,” Evans said. “If you have higher levels of body fat, is it always bad or is it only bad if you’re inactive? If people can remain at a higher weight but are active, do they have the same disease risk?”

The study will try to determine what contributes to a reduction in physical ability, and how best to deal with older adults who are overweight or obese. While the study will look at how diet and exercise each affect muscle quality, it will not compare the merits of the two and say which is better, Evans said.

Georgiadis said the knowledge gained from the study could help motivate people to improve their health through diet or exercise.

“Of course, if you eat healthy and exercise, it improves your life,” Georgiadis said. “But how? That how might be the clue for motivation.”


The University of Illinois researchers are looking for women between the ages of 60 and 80 for their study on muscle quality.
They are recruiting sedentary, non-smoking women, who may be able to participate in a weight loss or exercise program on campus.
The women in the study will undergo a series of tests: a whole body scan to determine bone density and body composition; an MRI scan to assess muscle and fat tissue in the thigh; a blood test; and balance and strength tests.
Those interested in participating in the study should contact Dolores Guest by e-mail at merit.uiuc@gmail.com, or by calling 333-2774.

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