October 8, 2022
If there was a magic pill that can provide the benefits of intense exercise, but without any of the sweat, would you take it? Neuroscientists at the University of Houston have made a potentially ground-breaking discovery for human health. In a new study they showed for the first time that a very light and focused muscle exercise, dubbed the 'soleus push-up', can dramatically boost the body's metabolism and rate of oxygen consumption. Here we'll cover why this finding might just be one of the biggest ever breakthroughs in modern human biology.
The soleus is a slim minor calf muscle that sits behind the main calf (gastrocnemius) and Achilles tendon, running from the heel to the back of the knee. The muscle is generally activated when the calf is stretched, that is, when the foot is raised above flat and pushing down. Walking or running up a steep hill (but not steps), is an example of when they come into play.
Muscles are the largest lean mass in our bodies, yet in terms of whole-body oxidative metabolism, they only burn 15% of glucose at rest. This lack of muscular metabolism when at rest is associated with the now well-established health risks of too much sitting too much. Surprising to most people, this risk is still high even for people who participate in regular exercise or do workouts, such as going to the gym or running.
This muscle has a special in-built mechanism, unknown until now. The researchers showed that when this specific muscle is activated in a very specific way, whole body glucose metabolism is increased by 30-45%. This occurs with negligible energy expenditure of actually contracting the soleus, and also triggers the use of a previously undiscovered fuel mixture.
The exercise is a simple repetitive heel lift while keeping the ball of the foot on the floor, which can be done while seated on the floor or on a chair. Interestingly, this precise type of soleus contraction is deactivated while walking or running. Accordingly, lower limb energy muscle expenditure was also tested on a treadmill.
Remarkably, the soleus push-up burned more than twice as much oxygen across all the leg muscles than running. The same metabolic effects were also found to be ten times greater than walking. This huge boost in energy consumption was seen across adults aged 22–82 years of age.
The takeaway is that systemic metabolic regulation can be greatly improved by activating this minor calf muscle, and without resistance or added weights. These research findings reveal a widely accessible and practical way to counter the significant health risks of prolonged sitting, including for people who exercise regularly.
Here is an overview of the study findings by the lead research Marc Hamiliton.
There could also be many more benefits, such as preventing deep vein thrombosis (DBT) on long haul flights. This is caused by the build-up of blood clots due to restricted blood circulation in the legs, which in turn can travel around the cardiovascular system and can cause fatal heart attacks.
In particular, soleus push-ups could be ideal therapy for people who have limited movement, due to injuries, disease, or the physiological effects of natural aging. More research is needed to investigate such benefits.
Though the study findings seem hard to believe, there are similar biological mechanisms that have been discovered, which likewise initiate the body to go beyond normal human activity. One example that has been well established in sports science, is plyometric muscle contractions, where muscles are briefly eccentrically stretched beyond their normal range, then rapidly contracted. This causes a significant increase is muscle power. As such it is a training technique used in many sports to build up power.
Other examples are the release of energy reserves in completely fatigued endurance athletes when simply tasting sugars, and boosts in all sensory processing when receiving a very specific pattern of sensory stimulation termed 'stochastic resonance'.
It's tempting to label these phenomena as biohacks, but this is open to debate, as these natural responses are built into our fundamental biology through evolution. The soleus push-up breakthrough does however raise an important question - what else can be discovered about our bodies' hidden in-built abilities? Hopefully science will tell.
The open-access paper can be read here.
'A potent physiological method to magnify and sustain soleus oxidative metabolism improves glucose and lipid regulation'
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