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UM study digs deep for healthiest exercise regimen

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Getting in shape is a common resolution when a new year begins. It’s still unclear, though, what kind of exercise is best for each individual.

To help answer that question, a groundbreaking study is being launched this month at the University of Michigan and 18 other centers across the country to help scientists better understand molecular changes in the body as result of exercise.

John Allic, left, 37, of Saline, grimaces as he guts it out on the rowing machine at Cross Fit in the D in Detroit. A $170 million project will create a map of molecular changes that occur as a result of physical activity to see what works, and what doesn’t.

The study could one day result in better information about how much a specific person should exercise and what type of exercise should be done for biological changes that lead to improved health.

“Right now, the advice from doctors is still delivered in general terms,” said Jun Li, a University of Michigan associate professor of human genetics and computational medicine and bioinformatics. “But these instructions can be more specific if we have more knowledge.”

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the study is a six-year, $170 million project that will create a map of molecular changes that occur as a result of physical activity based on samples from 3,000 people of different races, ethnic groups, sex, ages and fitness levels.

The hope is one day when patients visit their doctors, they would receive personalized exercise plans catered to them instead of generic recommendations.

Currently, there are many unknowns within a doctor’s exercise advice: Should one exercise for strength or endurance? And what does good health mean?

While scientists have long known that exercise is important to overall health, there isn’t an understanding of the impact of exercise at the molecular level, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said in a video explaining the work.

“We know that different parts of the body talk to each other during exercise, but we don’t know what their language is,” Collins said. “We’re trying to figure out the voice that’s being used by these molecules in the space of an exercise program that actually improves other parts of the body’s function whether that’s muscle building, strength and bones or even mental status, and resistance to depression. All of those things are in there, but we don’t know how they work.”

Known as the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium, the project will include 40,000 human samples of blood, skeletal muscle and fat. It will also include samples from animal models, along with thousands of genes and metabolites.

The data will be used to create a map of proteins, hormones and other molecules that change during and after exercise. It will be stored in a publicly accessible database so that scientists around the world can use it to study the effect of exercise on the body, organs and tissue.

“Discovering the similarities and difference among individuals in their responses to exercise will be important in prescribing the right amount and type of exercise for a person to improve their health,” said Charles Burant, a UM professor of internal medicine and integrative physiology, who will lead the Michigan effort with Li. “It may also provide some way in which we can mimic the beneficial effects of exercise in those who are not able to exercise enough to obtain health benefits.”

Eryn Huber, 34, stretches at Cross Fit in the D. The study aims to help doctors devise personalized exercise plans for patients instead of generic recommendations.

Felix Nunley, owner and operator of Body Design and Wellness in Detroit, is thrilled by what the study could show.

“The idea that those of us committed to the science of training will be provided with more data on how to better serve individuals and groups,” Nunley said. “We can make smarter decisions in program design as we understand how similar groups respond to exercise.”

UM, which was awarded a $8.2 million National Institutes of Health grant to participate, will work with four other chemical analysis sites to analyze samples from humans and animals in the study.

The scope and approach to the project is systematic and ambitious, Li said. But the outcome could revolutionize how people exercise and stay healthy.

“We hope it will lead to improving health at the beginning of the game, rather then the end of the game,” Li said.