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Building muscle is easier for people who have done the work before, study finds

Researchers say it takes less time to rebuild muscles because of a sort of ‘muscle memory’

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Photo (c) skynesher - Getty Images
In addition to the toll it’s taking on our mental health, the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on our physical health. Many consumers who exercised regularly before the pandemic struck have been unable to reliably return to those good habits, leading to weight gain and muscle loss. 

But results from a recent study suggest that some consumers shouldn’t worry about a long trek back towards fitness. The findings suggest that consumers who trained their muscles before the pandemic will be able to bring them back into shape more quickly than people who didn’t work out or exercise.

After reviewing the findings, lead researcher Keven Murach concluded that “it’s better to have worked out and lost muscle, than to have not worked out at all.”

Using “muscle memory” to get fit

The researchers came to their conclusions after conducting an experiment that measured skeletal muscle in mice. One group of mice was trained on a weighted wheel over eight weeks to build up their muscles before being taken off the wheel for 12 weeks to “detrain” them. After the 12 weeks were up, the researchers retrained the mice on the weighted wheel for four weeks and compared their muscle growth to another group of mice that had never undergone any training.

The team found that the group of mice that had prior training on the weighted wheel saw accelerated muscle growth when compared to the untrained group of mice. They theorize that this is caused by a sort of “muscle memory” that allows muscle cells to remember the kind of training they previously went through. This allows the muscles themselves to adapt to working out again, leading to better results over shorter periods of time. 

So what does this mean for consumers? In short, if you exercised and trained your physical fitness before the pandemic, it won’t take you as long to gain back the muscle you once had. For people who are worried about falling out of shape over the last two years, the findings may be the shot in the arm they need to get back to their exercise regimen.

The full study has been published by Oxford University Press and the American Physiological Society.

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