UBC Assist. Prof. Chris McNeil and doctoral student Luca Ruggiero test leg fatigue using a specialized device called an isometric dynamometer. contributed

UBC Okanagan study says lowlanders no match for Nepal’s Sherpa

High-altitude adaptation makes muscle tissue highly resilient to fatigue

The Sherpa people of the Himalayas have long been recognized for their unique ability to excel physically in the thin air of higher altitudes. But new research from UBC’s Okanagan campus, published last week in the Journal of Physiology, now suggests that their specially adapted muscles give them up to twice the resistance to muscle fatigue of lowlanders.

“People who live near sea level—lowlanders—struggle with fatigue and impaired physical performance at high altitude, when the oxygen levels are very low,” said Chris McNeil, assistant professor at UBC Okanagan’s School of Health and Exercise Sciences and study senior author. “But the Sherpa are born and raised at low-oxygen and their ancestors have lived above 4,000 metres for 20,000 years so they are the gold standard of exceptional high-altitude performance. Unfortunately, very little research has looked at how their muscles deal with fatigue in such an extreme environment.”

McNeil and his doctoral student Luca Ruggiero wanted to know if the muscle fibres of the Sherpa were just as efficient in a low-oxygen environment as their well-studied cardiorespiratory systems. To test the idea, they travelled as part of a UBC Okanagan-led expedition to the Pyramid International Laboratory, located at 5,050 metres on the Nepali side of Mt. Everest. At the Pyramid lab they performed muscle fatigue tests on 10 Sherpa and 12 lowlanders.

“We wanted to know how Sherpa muscles became fatigued after physical strain and how quickly those muscles recover compared to people who spend their lives at oxygen-rich sea level,” said Ruggiero. “It turns out that the Sherpa fatigued about 33 per cent less than lowlanders and recovered nearly twice as fast.”

RELATED: UBC Okanagan professor tasked with increasing diversity in science

“In fact, at 5,000 metres, where the oxygen concentration is roughly half that at sea-level, the Sherpa out-performed even the fittest lowlanders studied,” said Ruggiero.

For their tests, the team connected the dominant leg of the participant to a specialized device called an isometric dynamometer to measure the force exerted by the quadriceps—muscles on the front of the thigh that straighten the knee. After determining the strength of each participant, electrical stimulation was used to make the quadriceps contract rhythmically, as they do when walking, for approximately four minutes. Muscle fatigue was measured as the drop in force from the start to the end of the four minutes.

RELATED: Cornel West to speak at UBC Okanagan campus

“We specifically wanted to look at the quadriceps because they are so important in activities like walking, hiking and climbing,” said McNeil. “Even with similar oxygen delivery to the muscles in both groups, Sherpa muscle fibres have a remarkable ability to use oxygen efficiently during and after exercise.”

Understanding Sherpa muscle capabilities is not only interesting for researchers, says McNeil, but may also have practical applications for lowlanders living with a variety of diseases or afflictions.

“You don’t need to be on Everest for the body to experience the negative effects of reduced levels of oxygen reaching tissues,” said McNeil. “For example, those suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease struggle with fatigue and impaired physical performance just like a healthy lowlander would if they were living at high altitude.”

“A better grasp of how Sherpa muscles are able to not only survive but thrive in such a harsh environment could one day lead to exercise or pharmacological interventions and change the lives of countless people,”said McNeil.

“That’s the holy grail of studying the incredible physical abilities of the Sherpa.”

To report a typo, email:
newstips@kelownacapnews.com
.


@KelownaCapNews
newstips@kelownacapnews.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cougar caught on camera in Lake Country

A Lake Country resident caught a cougar prowling near their home

Dry March causes modest increases to Okanagan snowpack

The Okanagan region increased from 115 per cent of normal snowpack to 116 per cent

Rockets’ Pavel Novak cracks central scouting list for upcoming NHL draft

Novak is ranked No. 85 on NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American skaters

YMCA Okanagan offers care for children of essential service workers

Priority will be given to children aged 5 to 12 years old

Kelowna Rotary Club donates $50,000 for youth treatment program

The donation will support The Bridge’s Okanagan youth Recovery House project

UPDATE: Canadians awake to extra COVID-19 emergency benefit money, feds clarify changes

The CRA and federal officials are working to clarify the confusion around payments

UPDATE: Coronavirus concerns prompt event cancellations across the Okanagan

This is a running list of events cancelled across the Okanagan

Smiles, honks and waves as teachers stage parade for their students

Classrooms are closed, but kids and teachers manage to connect

B.C. sorting medical equipment sales, donation offers for COVID-19

Supply hub has call out for masks, gowns, coronavirus swabs

Summerland winery sold for $5.2 million

Property overlooking Okanagan Lake was on the market 160 days

B.C. records five more deaths due to COVID-19, 45 new cases

A total of 838 people have recovered from the virus

COVID-19: B.C. students describe life during pandemic

Most teens wonder what the future will be like after COVID-19

COLUMN: Local journalism more important than ever before

Response to recent farm worker situation was concerning

Most Read