Syracuse University Magazine

Lab Rat


Volunteering for an exercise study can be a revealing matter

I wore a bathing suit to work one February morning—even though it was regulation winter weather in Syracuse, with light flakes of crystalline snow falling and the thermometer hovering around 18 degrees. Swimsuits are not typical attire in the University’s Office of Marketing and Communications, where I work, but I had a date with the Bod Pod, an egg-shaped closet that would gauge my percentage of body fat by estimating how much air I displace. For the test to be accurate, I had to be as close to my “natural state” as possible. Hence the bathing suit, although I cheated and wore the one with tummy control.

The Bod Pod test, along with a weigh-in, would determine if I was accepted as a volunteer subject for an exercise science study with the incredibly long name of “Exercise Effects on Intramyocellular Lipid Content in Young and Older Obese Subjects and Older Non-Obese Subjects.” According to principal investigator Ruth M. Franklin G’04, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Education’s exercise science program, the study’s aim is to understand how the fat in muscle changes in response to a single bout of intense resistance exercise. “This study is based on one that looked at the droplets of fat in the muscles of younger, non-obese men,” Franklin says. “And it showed that resistance exercise had an effect on them. We know it works, but we want to see if we get the same results in other populations. In my study, we’re looking at the muscle cells in women, typically an underrepresented group, to see if we get the same effect. We also want to know if there are differences between the groups.”

My weight and body fat percentage (neither of which will be divulged here)—plus the fact that I don’t smoke, don’t take antidepressants, birth control or hormone replacement medication, don’t have high blood pressure, high blood sugar, or out-of-control cholesterol, and don’t exercise all that much—made me a prime candidate for the study. In all, 30 women were recruited for the program in three categories: overweight younger women, overweight older women, and lean older women—my group, in case you’re wondering. (The term “older” is open to interpretation, and we’ll skip the age range as unnecessary for this story.) Fellow researchers had warned Franklin the lean older group would be the hardest to recruit, but she found that not to be true. “The group I had the most trouble getting was the young obese, because they couldn’t be on antidepressants for the study,” she says. “In one day, I screened out 10 young women because of the medication. I assume they’re depressed about being obese, but one of the side effects of most antidepressants is weight gain. The medications impact fat metabolism, which is why we have to screen out people who are taking them.”

The initial interview and Bod Pod experience took place in the exercise science department, conveniently located upstairs from my office in the Women’s Building. The rest of the study sessions were held in a big, bright room furnished with every kind of exercise equipment imaginable, including a track, at SUNY Upstate Medical University’s Institute for Human Performance. During the second session, Franklin showed me the equipment I’d use for exercising my leg muscles, since those were the ones that would be tested. She was impressed by the range of motion in my ankles and asked if I was a dancer—noting they usually see such good lower leg flexibility only in ballerinas. 

At our third meeting, Franklin tested to see how much weight I could lift with my ballerina legs, making the weight stack heavier and heavier until my muscles declined to cooperate. She wasn’t kidding about the intensity of the exercise. There were five stations, each with a different exercise, and it was fun to see just how many of those metal weights I could lift. The hardest part was not letting go too soon and clanging the weights on release. 

For three days before the last session, I was instructed to make a list of everything I ate (an eye-opener in itself) and to consume at least 200 grams of carbohydrate per day—absolutely not a problem. The night before the test, I ate a dinner that Franklin had formulated specifically for me: chicken breast, white rice, broccoli, and two slices of wheat bread and butter—washed down with one liter of water. The purpose of the precise menu was to control for diet, according to Franklin, so the amount of food consumed wouldn’t vary and introduce error into the study.

The next morning, I was more than a little nervous about the challenge ahead, so for inspiration I donned that immortal emblem of Orange stamina, my “Marathon Men” T-shirt. The final session consisted of a fasting blood draw, then into an MRI for scans of the right leg. An intense bout of exercise followed, and then it was back into the MRI for another set of pictures. With Franklin out of town at a conference, her colleague, Amy Bidwell G’07, was in charge of my session.

When all the volunteers have been tested, Franklin will analyze the results to determine if the intense resistance exercise had any effect on cell fat. Her findings may add to the body of knowledge about insulin resistance and diabetes—the rates of both are on the rise in this country. “I’m eager to see what happens,” says Franklin, whose post-doctoral goal is to work in the public health sector. “I want to help people live healthier lives. When I developed this study, I tried to be sure to give something back to the subjects; it wasn’t all about me and my research. Many women feel too intimidated to go to a gym, but I wanted to show them that it’s not as hard as it seems.”

Will I go from lab rat to gym rat? Participating in the study was interesting and working out on the machines really was fun, so it’s a possibility. Or maybe I’ll take a class in ballet.                  

—Paula Meseroll