Graduate students, Western retirees work out the neuromuscular system

There’s no doubt about it. Exercise is like medicine for aging Canadians.

Thanks to a team of graduate students at Western’s Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging (CCAA) Neuromuscular Lab, the Research Retirement Association (RRA) can tailor their fitness program not only to strengthen muscle control but help reduce fatigue in old age.

Supervised by Drs. Charles Rice and Anthony Vandervoort, graduate students from the School of Kinesiology are on a mission to understand the workings of the neuromuscular system. By conducting various models such as fatigue and aging, the team is collecting data that will show how age and activity influence human motor control and function.

Geoffrey Power, a fourth-year PhD student, focuses his research on the effect of fatigue and muscle damage on short-term velocity-dependent power loss and recovery in young and old men and women.

“Our most recent line of studies investigates what we call velocity dependent fatigue,” says Power, who completed his undergraduate and master’s degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland before coming to Western to begin his doctoral studies.

“As an individual ages, they get slower and the muscle contractile properties, such as force, power and velocity, get slower. We found that if we stress those individuals with fast movements, they’re in fact more fatigable than younger adults. Our lab has shown that older adults are more fatigable when they are stressed with everyday tasks, but now we’re showing that with fast contractions.”

Although the neuromuscular lab group studies kinesiology, each graduate student must conduct three to four unique studies as part of their doctoral studies. Different methods are used to investigate how nerves and muscles interact to produce force and velocity. Some examples of the studies that have taken place include research on plantar flexor muscles of the foot, knee-extensive projects, and research on muscle damage.

Brad Harwood, a fifth-year PhD candidate who completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Windsor, praises the individual and collective team effort that goes on in the lab.

“We all have the same foundation and we all understand the other people’s techniques which make things easier since a lot of our experiments require more than two hands,” Harwood says. “You need two or three people with you working on the same project in order to complete.”

Retirees in the RRA program are contributing as well by regularly volunteering with the neuromuscular lab. Dale Harrison, Chair of the RRA, says that it’s their way of giving back to the Western community.

“We want to help researchers so that whatever they discover will ultimately help someone else,” Harrison says. “It’s fun to be part of it and see what goes on behind these walls because otherwise we would never know.”

Power stresses the importance of RRA members volunteering their time towards research.  “Everything we do we pretty much uses participants from the RRA. In order to improve quality of life and longevity, we want to know the mechanisms behind aging. As an adult gets older they lose muscle mass which directly relates to strength and velocity loss. We want to know what kind of programs we can tailor to increase that strength and velocity in order to maintain some sort of functional level for everyday tasks.”

By having an active group from the RRA to compare with active young adults, Power says they are able to get more insight on the actual mechanisms that they wouldn’t find with a sedentary group.

Harwood couldn’t agree more. “We can’t run our studies without them. In order to recruit subjects for our studies, we would have to go to a number of locations and our success rate would be way less than 50 per cent at each one of those locations. But with the RRA we tend to have a higher success rate because they are active and they are already coming to Western.”

The RRA and the Ladies Retirement Research Association (LRRA) are groups of retired men and women who wish to maintain a healthy lifestyle. During the winter months, the group meets Monday, Wednesday and Friday at either TD Waterhouse Stadium or Thompson Arena. A series of warm-up exercises, walking and cool-down periods are led by qualified instructors from the kinesiology program.

The RRA was founded in 1981 by cardiologist Dr. Peter Rechnitzer, along with Drs. David Cunningham and John Howard. In 1978, Rechnitzer conducted a four-year study program to monitor the benefits of exercising for aging Canadians. The program was so effective that some of the original participants are still part of the program.

Today the RRA and LRRA actively pursue the benefits of exercise for a healthy retirement that the original exercise provided. For more information, contact Harrison at 519-686-0551.