fitness · research

Is the soleus pushup the key to health? Catherine has thoughts

In case you’ve been outside or busy with other things non-internet this weekend, a) good for you; and b) a dense but very interesting research article came out; and c) this article has made otherwise sensible science journalists go hog wild. Researchers Mark and Deborah Hamilton and Theodore Zderic found:

…the human soleus muscle could raise local oxidative metabolism to high levels for hours without fatigue, during a type of soleus-dominant activity while sitting, even in unfit volunteers. Muscle biopsies revealed there was minimal glycogen use. Magnifying the otherwise negligible local energy expenditure with isolated contractions improved systemic VLDL-triglyceride and glucose homeostasis by a large magnitude, e.g., 52% less postprandial glucose excursion (∼50 mg/dL less between ∼1 and 2 h) with 60% less hyperinsulinemia. 

Very roughly, this means:

  • Our big calf muscle can work continuously for long periods, without fatigue
  • This process doesn’t use much glycogen, as it’s not intense muscular activity
  • But, it has some surprising beneficial effects (insert technical stuff here about V-LDL triglyceride levels, glucose release after meals, and insulin levels related to insulin resistance, a condition that is considered a precursor to type-2 diabetes).
  • Also, this is a surprising result, which is cool.

They were also nice enough to provide an illustration. So, if you like pictures:

The research results, complete in illustration.

But of course, the internet wasn’t satisfied with my explanation from above. Oh, no, that boring information won’t do at all. Here’s what they had to say instead:

Doing this small movement while sat at your desk can boost your metabolism and burn fat.
No no no–they’re not saying we should all do calf raises to burn fat.
groundbreaking discovery of special muscle can promote fat burning while sitting.
Definitely no no no– they didn’t discover the calf muscle; that once was well-known already.

The producers of the second article also got a little confused about where the “special muscle” was:

So many things wrong here, but for starters: the "special muscle"-- large calf muscle-- is not around her waist, but rather in her lower leg. The picture shows a woman with a tape measure around her waist. Sigh.
So many things wrong here, but for starters: the “special muscle”– large calf muscle– is not around her waist, but rather in her lower leg.

To be clear, the researchers tried very hard to stave off a new Tik-Tok calf-raise-at-the-desk craze. They say in the article:

This study was not a clinical trial. This was an experimental physiological study, conducted in highly controlled laboratory conditions. This study also did not test effectiveness of a free-living lifestyle intervention. 

And this:

One should be cautious when interpreting the relative effectiveness in subcategories until follow-up studies with a large sample size are performed. The practicality will also depend on implementation in large parts of the population. The practicality will depend in part on evidence that people are capable of successfully performing SPU contractions outside of a laboratory without EMG feedback. There is a need to test when this could be integrated within the lifestyle without disrupting various seated behaviors.

But the science journalists ignored all this. All they saw was that maybe this– the fancy lab-telemetry-enabled calf raise– could potentially reverse the death-encroaching effects of sitting for too long. So they wasted no time in putting that message out to the public. Even though one of the articles showed the illustration below, it still trumpeted the result as instantly available to office workers everywhere.

I'm not sure I can even do email under these conditions, much less serious work. What about you? The picture shows a person hooked up to machinee with a face mask measuring CO2 output in a lab.
I’m not sure I can even do email under these conditions, much less serious work. What about you?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with calf raises. I do them on airplanes to help circulation (and also pass the time). But the soleus is not the “special muscle” that the internet is all in a swoon over. It’s just another one of our hard working body parts that help us get through our day.

Readers, did you see the calf-muscle-fever articles this weekend? Were you swayed for even a minute? I didn’t think so….

4 thoughts on “Is the soleus pushup the key to health? Catherine has thoughts

  1. I haven’t read the study, but it does remind me of the study that showed a correlation between grip strength and something else (maybe longevity, maybe overall health), and folks thought that it was causative – if I strengthen my grip, great things will follow. It may have been you who first brought that one to my attention. When people try to read too much into a study, I like to point out that the leading cause of death is birth. 100% of those who are born will die; or that all people who drink water will die, but that doesn’t mean drinking water causes death. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Since I do “soleus pushups” standing on the edge of a stairstep, I probably won’t get any of the benefits because I’m doing it all wrong;)

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