dominant in the elderly, that style of exercise doesn’t work, says Fitts. They need slower movement. This isn’t just yoga or tai chi. The muscles still need to be taxed — “loaded” — during exercise. Taxing doesn’t mean straining, though. The most effective weight exercises only require people to push about 30 percent of the maximum load of which they’re capable, not the 80 percent that you might see the ambitious try to push at a health club. “If you lift at 30 percent of your max load, you actually will get more power over time than you would with the 80 percent load,” Fitts says. Two groups of older adults will take part in the study. One group will do traditional leg muscle training with weights equivalent to 80 percent of their maximum capacity at normal speed, so 1 to 2 seconds per lift. The second will use less weight, 30 percent of maximum, and far more slowly. Instead of typical eight-repetition intervals, they’ll lift for as many repetitions as they can in a single round. Before and after the training, the researchers will compare strength, as well as fatigue in the nervous system and in the muscle using a variety of instruments and techniques: transcranial magnetic stimulation, magnetic resonance spectroscopy and magnetic resonance imaging, and muscle biopsies, studying single muscle fibers for their contractile function and metabolic characteristics, Hunter says. Hunter and Fitts have long crossed paths in their work at the university but had never before worked jointly on research. Now, their disparate disciplines are helping the project span a range of research areas. Hunter’s team will work directly with human subjects who will learn a collection of new fitness techniques. Fitts, working primarily at the laboratory bench, will focus quite literally on human tissues of the research subjects and how they change in response to aging and exercise. “It was a natural collaboration,” Fitts says. Other collaborators at Marquette are Dr. Alexander Ng, associate professor of exercise science; Dr. Mehdi Maadooliat, assistant professor of mathematics, statistics and computer science; and Dr. Carolyn Smith, clinical professor of physical therapy and executive director of the Marquette University Medical Clinic. An additional team based at Ball State University will examine molecular biological data. Marquette undergraduate and graduate students will also take part by working on the various research teams based here. Both find a certain personal resonance in the work. Hunter — who has competed in many triathlons — has gravitated
Dr. Sandra Hunter’s research in exercise science has shown that staying active can confer as much as a “10-year advantage” on women in their 70s.
to working with older people since first making the transition from gym teacher to the academic world of exercise science in her native Australia. Having worked with older patients during and since her graduate studies, she has come to deeply appreciate their distinctive traits and the stories she hears from them, not to mention their punctuality. “They turn up early to appointments!” she says with delight. For Fitts, who still maintains an active running regimen and does regular weight training at the age of 73, there’s a striking contrast between their project and the work that seems to dominate the research agenda in the world of athletic training. “You’ve got lots and lots of people working to try to get the world-class athlete to get 1 second better,” he says. “But you can double the force of an older person with the right type of training.”
Listen to an interview with Hunter and Fitts on WUWM’s Lake Effect program: go.mu.edu/strong-muscles. aging muscles unbound