How muscle memory influences exercise

(WNDU) – COVID has forced many people to take time off from the gym.

When you’re on a hiatus, you might be concerned about losing the progress you’ve built. But new research shows your muscles have memories.

Muscle memory is the act of committing a specific motor task into memory through repetition.

Muscles are full of neurons attached to the nervous system that play a role in motor learning. Many believe muscle memory will allow you to regain muscle size and strength rather quickly. However, it is more the result of learned motor skills and less about muscle growth. When we achieve an increase and growth of muscle cells, our muscle fibers experience an increase in a type of cell known as myonuclei. These cells’ main job is to help us get stronger and increase our muscle fibers’ size. Studies suggest that while muscle fibers can decrease in size when we stop training, the number of myonuclei appears to stay stable even for extended periods of time and in atrophied muscles.

“As long as you stay active, you’re creating muscle memory, you’re in the process of that,” said Curtis McGee, a fitness expert.

Here’s how it works: every time you work out, you build a foundation of strength and endurance, so your muscles literally remember what they’re supposed to do.

“So, if I ran a mile, and I’m used to running a mile, and I stop running a mile for awhile, and then I begin to start running a mile, there’s a chance that I will adapt to that much faster than never having a run,” McGee said.

A new study conducted in mice suggests you can build muscle memory no matter how long it’s been since you’ve hit the gym. Researchers found animals that participated in weighted-wheel workouts were able to add more muscle more quickly when they retrained after 12 weeks of inactivity compared to the mice that never trained. 12 weeks is about 10 percent of a mouse’s lifespan. Scientists say this study suggests humans’ muscles should remain primed to respond to the exercises when they start again, even years later.

“All you’re doing is recalling it,” McGee said.

Researchers at Keele University have even showed for the first time that human muscles possess a ‘memory’ at the DNA level.

Using the latest genome wide techniques, the researchers studied over 850,000 sites on human DNA and discovered the genes marked or unmarked with special chemical tags when muscles grow following exercise, then returns to normal, and then grows again following exercise in later life. Known as epigenetic modifications, these markers or tags tell the gene whether it should be active or inactive, providing instructions to the gene to turn on or off without changing the DNA itself. The research has important implications in how athletes train, recover from injury, and has potentially far-reaching consequences for athletes caught cheating.

“If an athlete’s muscle grows, and then they get injured and lose some muscle, it may help their later recovery if we know the genes responsible for muscle ‘memory’. Further research will be important to understand how different exercise programs can help activate these muscle memory genes,” said Adam Sharples, MD, Senior Lecturer in Cell and Molecular Muscle Physiology at Keele University.

If you do have to take a break from the gym, you might want to up your consumption of protein. In one study, increased protein intake reduced the loss of lean body mass in athletes even when they weren’t training.

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Aish Barbara

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