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Arnold School of Public Health

FLEX Lab publishes lessons learned from 30-year study on effects of exercise on cardiometabolic health

May 31, 2022 | Erin Bluvas,

Mark Sarzynski, associate professor of exercise science and director of the Foundations of Lipids and Exercise (FLEX) Laboratory, has led the publication of a review of the lessons learned from the HERITAGE Family Study over the past three decades. The resulting paper received its own supplemental issue in the journal, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

“HERITAGE is one of the landmark studies in the field of exercise science and has produced over 200 individual papers and many research grants across numerous sites and scientists that are still ongoing today,” Sarzynski says. “Our paper gives an overview of this study and some of its major findings across the past 30 years.”

Launched in 1992 and funded by the National Institutes of Health, the HERITAGE Family Study has documented the range of individual responses to exercise. Previously physically inactive participants engaged in a 20-week endurance exercise program, where the researchers measured how their bodies responded to regular exercise and identified clinical, genetic and molecular factors associated with these response patterns/levels.

In particular, the scientists look at cardiorespiratory fitness and risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease – finding large individual differences in response to regular exercise. According to the FLEX team, these variations show that the one-size-fits-all approach for exercise prescription, although beneficial for public health purposes, is likely not optimal at the individual level.

“The response differences seen in the study have tended to aggregate in families and are partly heritable,” say Jacob Barber, a doctoral student in the FLEX Lab and co-author on the paper. “This shows that genetic factors likely play a role in exercise responsiveness and makes HERITAGE the first study to embark on a systematic search for genomic variants associated with exercise response variability.”

In their review, the FLEX team documents findings from HERITAGE related to cardiorespiratory fitness, insulin and glucose metabolism, lipid/lipoprotein profiles, metabolic indicators, and other factors. They also share how these findings have led to new opportunities for screening and treatment – all contributing to the extended timeline of the study.

“Thanks to a well-defined biobank, the data of HERITAGE continue to be used 30 years later to address fundamental questions regarding the role of human biology and how it benefits from regular exercise,” Sarzynski says. “As such, the HERITAGE study provides highly relevant information on the complex biology of cardiorespiratory fitness and common cardiometabolic traits and their relationship with physical activity, fitness and health.”


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