Could a simple blood test measure aerobic fitness?

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A group of scientists is exploring the molecular basis of fitness, and may be able to develop a simple blood test to determine a person’s level of health and well-being, a report says.

Scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine wanted more details beyond what is offered by a peak VO2 test, which measures the maximum rate of oxygen consumption during exercise to determine aerobic fitness. In a recent study, they explored how exercise sparks change at the molecular level.

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“Everybody knows exercise is good for you, but we really don’t know what drives that at a molecular level,” said Michael Snyder, PhD, professor and chair of genetics, in an article from the university. “Our goal at the outset was to conduct a highly comprehensive analysis of what’s happening in the body just after exercising.”

The study involved 36 participants who gave way for hundreds of thousands of molecular measurements as researchers tracked markers for metabolism, immunity, oxidative stress and cardiovascular function.

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The tests let researchers examine chemical fluctuations in the human body while the body undergoes intense exercise. The team said such comprehensive measurements mark the first in studying post-exercise molecular fluctuations.

The study was performed through VO2 testing on treadmills with study participants, males and females, aged 40 to 75 with an average BMI of 29.

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Before participants hopped on a treadmill, researchers drew a baseline blood sample. Participants then stepped on the treadmill wearing an oxygen-measuring mask, and ran at a slight incline until they reached peak oxygen consumption, at which point they got off the treadmill. Researchers then drew blood samples at intervals of two minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes and 60 minutes post-peak oxygen consumption.

Aerobic exercise is one of the best measures of longevity, says Kévin Contrepois, PhD, director of metabolomics and lipidomics in the Stanford University Department of Genetics. (iStock)

Aerobic exercise is one of the best measures of longevity, says Kévin Contrepois, PhD, director of metabolomics and lipidomics in the Stanford University Department of Genetics. (iStock)

The team described an intense “flurry” of molecular activity in the first two minutes after exercise, noted by sharp spikes of inflammation, tissue healing and oxidative stress in most participants. At the two minute mark, blood samples showed signs of the body metabolizing amino acids for energy, switching to glucose consumption at around 15 minutes.

For those who performed better on the VO2 test, scientists noticed a strong correlation between fitness level and thousands of markers for immunity, metabolism and muscle activity that remains unclear.

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“At this point, we don’t fully understand the connection between some of these markers and how they are related to better fitness,” Snyder said. The researchers plan to explore the correlation in the future.

"Aerobic exercise is one of the best measures of longevity," according to Kévin Contrepois, PhD, director of metabolomics and lipidomics in the Department of Genetics. He says a simple blood test providing such information would prove valuable to personal health monitoring.

The team filed a proof-of-principle test for patent application, according to the university statement. The test is not yet available to the public. While researchers work to narrow down the extensive biomarkers for broader use, they hope the test can someday offer a faster, more convenient method in measuring aerobic fitness.

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