fitness · research

Don’t try this at home: What to make of teeny-weeny fitness studies

Last week, a news article came out titled “An unconventional training idea for older women”. Hmmm. Those of us who write for or read this blog already know (many of us firsthand) that older women train for all sorts of activity in all sorts of ways.

But no, this is a bit different. Researchers at the University of Calgary in Alberta, noting that “The cardiac phenotype of a substantial fraction of the population, i.e., mature women, is mainly unresponsive to endurance training “, carried out a study in which the participants– 15 healthy women aged 52-75– got blood drawn (10% of their total blood volume) and a bit later completed an 8-week endurance training program.

The results were interesting: their cardiac functioning improved (with main improvements in left ventricle mass and function). Their VO2 max overall didn’t change significantly, but there were statistically significant improvements in the 80-90% effort levels.

Huh. Yeah, that was my reaction, too.

What are we to make of this? The news article offers some reasonable analysis.

As for the hypothesis that blood donation will overcome the reduced training response in older women, there are a bunch of caveats to consider. First, there was no control group that did the same training without donating blood. The authors emphasize that other studies with similar training protocols in similar populations haven’t produced big changes like this, which suggests that it’s the blood donation that sparked the magic. But still, without a direct comparison, how can we know that this particular program of intervals wasn’t simply better than the training used in previous studies?

More generally, it’s hard to interpret the nuances of heart adaptations. To be convincing, you want to know that a protocol helps women stay healthier or live longer, not that, say, it subtly changes the dimensions of one chamber of the heart. That, as the researchers acknowledge, will take more and longer-term research.

Right, so: 1) no control group, so who knows what would’ve happened without the blood donation; and 2) measurable structural and functional changes in parts of cardiac functioning do not, by themselves, provide evidence of clinical changes in older women’s health or fitness or sports performance.

Of course, it’s cool that researchers are paying any attention to older women’s endurance fitness at all, given the sad history of completely ignoring women in fitness and performance studies. I mean, when I picture sports performance studies, I think of something like this:

Okay, I don't really picture this. But one wonders what happens in the lab when the PIs (principal investigators) go home for the night. Picture: a bunch of guys with lab equipment, baseballs, fooling around in a very amusing way.
Okay, I don’t really picture this. But one does wonder what happens in the lab when the PIs (principal investigators) go home for the night.

Physiological research almost always focuses on individual or clusters of structures or functions in order to shed light on how they contribute to the complexity of overall human functioning. Studies like these play their part. But (and it’s a big but), they don’t translate into advice or recommendations for clinicians or individuals. The news article author concurs. But, they add that there’s a bit need for more research on older women’s endurance fitness. Agreed.

Just don’t go out and donate blood, expecting to crush your hike or long-distance swim or ride, okay? You’ll crush it just by heading out there.

I hope this is sufficient for the lawyers…. Have a nice day… 🙂

2 thoughts on “Don’t try this at home: What to make of teeny-weeny fitness studies

  1. As a regular blood donor, can I add that you will also crush it if you donate blood and don’t try to do any endurance stuff afterwards?

  2. Something is missing here, I think. I used to give blood regularly. I am small, so a standard donation takes a higher percentage of my blood than it would of someone bigger. I eventually stopped donating when I got very active because it took me so long to get back to my previous level of strength/endurance. My thing is bicycling; my favorite rides are many hours long. When I gave up donating I was training for something known as “The Death Ride” in the California Sierras. I was tracking what I could & couldn’t do pretty precisely. So, endurance.

    My question is, why did they not test the women before they took the blood? Then they might have a decent basis for comparison. I can promise you that if I were to donate blood (and my doctor says a standard donation is at least 10% of blood volume for someone of my size) and wait 2 months to begin an endurance training program, I would see significant improvement during the program.

    Why does this study believe it is showing an improvement beyond what anyone might experience once red blood cell levels are restored?

    By all means I favor giving blood if it works for you (I am too small to qualify these days & also am training for a major climb.)! But I would not use this as a reason without knowing a lot more.

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