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Posted: June 17, 2008

Elderly Restore Muscle with Painkillers while Exercising

Elderly men and women who lift weights for exercise experience a substantial increase in their muscle mass when they take the daily recommended dose of ibuprofen or acetaminophen, according to Ball State University researchers.

Researchers witnessed the changes in the quadriceps muscle mass of aging men and women over three months of regular weight lifting, while taking the ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

The quadriceps is a group of four muscles that sit on the front and rear of the thigh and function generally to extend – or straighten -- the knee. While important for all humans, strong quadriceps are important to the elderly in helping them maintain their mobility and their balance. In addition, the build-up of quadriceps and other muscles is significant because seniors generally lose muscle mass with age.

Ball State physiologist Dr. Chad Carroll, who reported the results at the recent Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, studied men and women between the ages of 60 and 78 (with an average age of 65) who were randomly assigned daily doses of either ibuprofen (branded as Advil, for example), acetaminophen (such as Tylenol), or a placebo. The doses were identical to those recommended by the manufacturers and were selected to most closely mimic what chronic users of these medicines were likely to be taking.

All subjects then participated in three months of weight training, incorporating 15- to 20-minute sessions three times per week. Training at this intensity and for this time period is enough to significantly increase muscle mass and strength. The researchers expected the placebo group to show such increases, as they in fact did, but they were surprised to find that the groups using either ibuprofen or acetaminophen did even better.

Interestingly, an earlier study measuring muscle metabolism over a 24-hour period found that both ibuprofen and acetaminophen had a negative impact, by blocking a specific enzyme commonly referred to as COX.

However, the longer-term consumption of ibuprofen or acetaminophen during weight-lifting resistance training appears to have enhanced the metabolic response to resistance exercise, allowing the body to add substantially more new protein to muscle.

Fresh on the heels of their findings, the Ball State team is now conducting assays of muscle biopsies taken before and after the three-months of resistance training in an effort to understand the metabolic mechanism of the positive effects of ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

Carroll’s research colleague in Ball State’s Human Performance Lab, physiologist Todd A. Trappe, said their study has implications for the elderly, who suffer from muscle loss as they age, and astronauts, who lose muscle mass and strength during long durations in space. Ball State currently has research projects focusing on the adaptation to exercise in both groups.  

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