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Stem cells are thought to hold the keys to miraculous cures. Researchers believe some day these cells will enable the regrowth of organs and the cure of everything from Parkinson’s to diabetes. But even as arguments rage about which human stem cells should be harvested and what to do with them, you don’t have to wait. You can put stem cells to work right now to fight off the effects of aging, rebuild muscle and rev up your personal energy.
Stem cells are unspecialized cells that, according to the National Institutes of Health, are “capable of renewing themselves through cell division.” They’re the repair experts of the body, standing by and ready to reproduce, repair and replace worn-out or damaged tissues.
Because of their unique characteristics, medical researchers believe that if they can harness the regenerative power of stem cells, they may be able to develop tools for treating a wide range of illness and damage in the human body. Instead of relying on donated organs to replace damaged kidneys, livers or other body parts, scientists hope they can learn how to use stem cells to regrow these tissues.
If you have diabetes and your pancreas malfunctions, you will be interested to know it may be possible someday to use stem cells to regrow pancreatic structures that secrete insulin. In the future, if you suffer heart attack damage to the heart muscle, stem cells may be able to be injected into the heart to repair and replace the injured cells.
Of course, extensive medical use of stem cells is probably still decades and billions of dollars of research away, but you can put your own stem cells to work right now to make your body effectively younger, stronger and more energetic. And it won’t cost you a dime. All you have to do is lift weights. And they don’t have to be heavy weights.
When you exercise your muscles, you put out a physiological message to your own stem cells, calling them into muscle cells to help build new tissue. Research at the University of Illinois shows that these stem cells, called mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), respond to the strain of weight lifting. For these special cells, vigorous exercise is a call to action. Once they arrive at the muscle sites that have been used to lift weights, they release specialized chemicals called growth factors that cause muscle cells to fuse and build new muscle.
It is that fusion of muscle cells and growth that leads to larger, stronger muscles and better health.
“These findings are important because we’ve identified an adult stem cell in muscle that may provide the basis for muscle health with exercise and enhanced muscle healing,” says researcher Marni Boppart. “The fact that MSCs in muscle have the potential to release high concentrations of growth factor into the circulatory system during exercise also makes us wonder if they provide a critical link between enhanced whole-body health and participation in routine physical activity.”
Strength At Any Age
If you don’t do any exercise and spend most of your time sitting still, you are passing up the chance to harness the rejuvenation power of these stem cells, and you’re condemning your body to a slow, inevitable decline. A sedentary lifestyle means that you’ll be capable of less and less activity as you age. Consequently, the average person past the age of 50 loses almost a half a pound of muscle every year.
“That only worsens as people age,” warns Mark Peterson, a research fellow at the University of Michigan who has studied the effects of resistance exercise.
“Even earlier in adulthood — the 30s, 40s and 50s — you can begin to see declines if you do not engage in strengthening activities,” Peterson says.
Active Stem Cells
The exercises you perform to keep those stem cells active and your muscles stronger do not have to be overly strenuous. You can do simple squats, modified push-ups or partake in classes in tai chi, Pilates and yoga.
If you decide to lift weights, they don’t have to be massive weights. Research at McMaster University in Canada shows that lifting light weights can be very effective if you lift them enough times. You merely have to perform enough repetitions to fatigue the muscles so that you can’t go on.
“Rather than grunting and straining to lift heavy weights, you can grab something much lighter but you have to lift it until you can’t lift it anymore,” says Stuart Phillips, associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster. “We’re convinced that growing muscle means stimulating your muscle to make new muscle proteins, a process in the body that over time accumulates into bigger muscles.”
Even as you read this, your muscle stem cells are standing by, waiting to make you feel younger, improve your looks and boost your health. All you have to do is give them a reason to spring into action by exerting yourself. Lift something, even if it’s just your own body out of your chair.