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

Okanagan rinks have mixed results as BC Seniors Curling finals begin

A total of 15 rinks are competing in Vernon for right to go to nationals in Manitoba

‘The NDP of the ’90s is back’: Kelowna-Lake Country MLA voices concerns over 2020 budget

Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick said the new budget is “classic NDP tax-and-spend”

Canadian Air Force joins Okanagan rescue of missing Kelowna snowmobiler

The teen had been missing since just after 6 p.m. on Monday

City of Kelowna signs UNHCR statement of solidarity with refugees

The #WithRefugees campaign invites cities working to promote inclusion and support refugees

Aquilini Group addresses heating complaints at SOPA Square in Kelowna

Some store owners have been without heat at development for up to a month

VIDEO: 7 things you need to know about the 2020 B.C. budget

Surplus of $227 million with big spending on infrastructure and capital projects

Trees Cannabis director fined $1.5M for selling marijuana

Fine follows provincial crackdown on popular dispensary

World Cup skier from Okanagan dies suddenly at 19

Kuroda, who made his World Cup debut earlier this year, passed away suddenly Monday night.

Coastal GasLink pipeline investor committed to closing deal despite protests

Developer TC Energy Corp. — formerly TransCanada Corp. — is to remain the operator of the $6.6-billion pipeline

New highway proposed between Alberta and B.C.

The route would connect Red Deer to Kamloops

What’s in a name? The story of Revelstoke’s Mt. Begbie

It’s likely the iconic peak had several Indigenous peoples’ names before settlers arrived

Budget 2020: B.C. Liberals blast ‘Netflix tax,’ lack of economic plan

ICBC rates still go up, except in election year, Shirley Bond says

Town of Osoyoos voices support for proposed casino

Osoyoos council voted to submit a letter of support for a proposed casino on OIB land

Two law enforcement trucks ‘deliberately’ set on fire in northern B.C., RCMP say

Police say they have video evidence of a person in the area of the truck fires

Most Read