Everyone understands implicitly that regular exercise is good for our health. It helps us lose weight, reduces the risks of diseases like heart disease and can even improve mood.
But exercise also has effects on our bodies at the molecular level that may offer insights about how to prevent or recover from many serious health issues. Doctors also want to know how to use exercise in conjunction with medicines and other lifestyle factors to improve health, which could be especially important for children.
That’s what the researchers at the UC Irvine Health Pediatric Exercise and Genomics Research Center (PERC) hope to uncover as one of only seven centers around the country participating in a new National Institutes of Health (NIH) program called Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity in Humans.
Exercise at the molecular level
“We know that exercise is good for us, but we don’t know as much about the molecular mechanisms, the processes throughout the cells of the body, that benefit us when we exercise,” says Dr. Shlomit Radom-Aizik, executive director of PERC.
The $170 million project forms the multidisciplinary Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium, or MoTrPAC, she says, “to create the molecular map in response to exercise, using cutting-edge genomics, metabolomics and proteomics platforms.”
The new study “is like the Human Genome Project for exercise,” says Dr. Dan Cooper, founding director of PERC, who will oversee the UC Irvine MoTrPAC study with Radom-Aizik. The federally funded Human Genome Project was undertaken in the 1990s to sequence all human DNA.
“One of the major lessons of the Human Genome Project was that just knowing the sequence of the genome isn’t enough; we have to look at the factors that influence how the genes are expressed,” adds Cooper, who is also associate vice chancellor for clinical and translational science and director of the UC Irvine Institute for Clinical and Translational Science.
“We will discover how exercise controls the expressions of genes, a field known as epigenetics, and we will use state-of-the-art analysis of metabolism and proteins. It’s a big deal, and we are so excited to be part of it.”
Researchers are increasingly looking at how exercise and fitness in children could have lasting implications for their health as they grow and age. PERC is the only center in the program that will have pediatric participants. The children, ages 11 to 17, will be recruited from schools around Orange County in collaboration with the Orange County Department of Education.
“The reason we’re recruiting from those ages is we want to see differences in exercise before and after puberty, a very dynamic period of change in growth and metabolism, and follow those differences as they develop,” Cooper says.
The overall goal of the study is to collect data from a diverse group of 3,000 participants aged 11 to 75 years, of whom 360 will be pediatric.
Once the study begins, participants will be split into two groups, doing either resistance training or aerobic training in the centers’ human performance laboratories. Tissue samples from participants will be sent for analysis to a single laboratory shared by all seven centers.
Studying the molecular changes triggered by exercise in healthy people will create a basis for future research. For example, researchers may learn how exercise affects the immune system.
“We know that when you run, you get an immediate stress response that actually affects how white blood cells work. But there may be longer-term effects, such as influencing which genes are turned on to fight infection and control inflammation,” Cooper says.
A hotbed of exercise research
In addition to the MoTrPAC program, PERC is home to a number of ongoing studies that look at how exercise relates to specific conditions and certain age groups of children.
PERC’s human performance laboratory allows participants to exercise on equipment like treadmills and stationary bikes while connected to monitoring devices, and the PERC on-site genomic laboratory can run genomic and epigenetic assays from various tissues like blood, muscle and saliva. One current study examines how exercise can affect the immune system in children with asthma, while another probes the mental and physical effects of therapeutic dance among children with cerebral palsy.
“We have 10 to 15 projects running at any given time,” Radom-Aizik says.
“We believe exercise might be used with other traditional medicines to improve the overall health of children with chronic diseases. MoTrPAC will help us to develop the scientific basis for using exercise as medicine.”
Exercise tailored to patients
Ultimately, Radom-Aizik and Cooper hope that research programs like MoTrPAC will allow doctors to prescribe detailed exercise programs for patients depending on their specific conditions.
“Healthy people and people with different clinical conditions respond to exercise in different ways,” Radom-Aizik says. “We are investigating so we can learn how to fine-tune the type and intensity of the exercise we prescribe both for healthy children and for children with chronic disease and disabilities.”