It is well-known that exercise is good for you, but how exactly does physical activity improve the function of different tissues and organs in the body? What molecules underlie how physical activity is translated into better health? The National Institutes of Health’s Common Fund launched a program that aims to catalogue extensively the biological molecules that are affected by physical activity in people, identify some of the key molecules that underlie the systemic effects of physical activity, and characterize the functions of these key molecules.
This program, Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity in Humans, is the largest targeted NIH investment of funds into the mechanisms of how physical activity improves health and prevents disease. Through the program, investigators at research institutions across the United States will receive about $170 million over five years, pending availability of funds.
“This program will lay the foundation for our understanding of how physical activity affects the human body, and ultimately, advance our understanding of how activity improves and preserves health,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “Armed with this knowledge, researchers and clinicians may one day be able to define optimal physical activity recommendations for people at various stages of life, as well as develop precisely targeted regimens for individuals with particular health needs.”
This program will include studies of different kinds of physical activity in humans, aimed at identifying biological molecules that change in response to exercise and that may play a role in mediating the effects of physical activity. Complementary studies of physical activity in animals will provide additional insights into the function of the molecular transducers of physical activity.
To ensure that the results from this program will apply to people broadly, participants in the study will range from children to older adults; include a variety of fitness levels, racial, and ethnic groups; and be equally distributed between males and females. Throughout the course of this program, active and sedentary volunteers will perform resistance or aerobic exercises. Blood, urine, and other tissue samples will be collected before and at several time points after the activities. These samples will be extensively analyzed using high-throughput technologies that allow rapid identification of many different biological molecules from large numbers of samples. This analysis will enable characterization of a variety of molecules that change following exercise and may mediate the effects of physical activity.
Additionally, some previously inactive volunteers will undergo a defined period of exercise training. Before and after training, investigators will assess participants’ responses to the training by measuring variables such as lung capacity, glucose tolerance, heart rate, body mass index, basal metabolic rate, muscle and fat mass, cognitive ability, and emotional wellbeing. Tissues samples from these participants will also be collected and analyzed. This aspect of the study will enable researchers to determine which biological molecules correlate with improved fitness resulting from repeated activity.
In addition to the human studies, investigators will conduct comparable studies in animals to gather information about critical tissues affected by exercise that are not easily studied in humans, such as lung, liver, brain, and heart. The animal studies could also provide valuable insights into the effects of physical activity over a longer timeframe. Data from the animals, combined with the information collected from the volunteers in the human study, will allow researchers to pinpoint how the molecular changes due to physical activity exert their effects and which tissues are targeted by specific molecules. Data from all activities within the program will comprise a molecular map of activity responses that will be made widely available to the scientific community, facilitating investigator-initiated studies and catalyzing the field of physical activity research.
“By capitalizing on recent technological breakthroughs in complex, high-throughput sample analysis, this program will enable a novel understanding of how physical activity contributes to a person’s health at a molecular level,” said James M. Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIH Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, which houses the Common Fund. “The knowledge generated through this program will inform studies of almost every organ and tissue in the human body, and will provide a critical resource for large numbers of researchers investigating the effects of physical activity in humans.”