Calcium + vitamin D + exercise = enhanced physical function, strength

Some recently published research is news you can use: Older adults may enjoy increased physical function and muscle strength by taking calcium and Vitamin D supplements.

The research also represents a colossal collaborative effort among researchers, staff and students at Iowa State University, Des Moines University and several other institutions who devoted thousands of hours to the success of the study, which was funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging.

Published in August in the Journals of Gerontology, the research, “Long-term Effects of Calcium β-Hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate (HMB) and Vitamin D3 Supplementation on Muscular Function in Older Adults with and without Resistance Training: A Randomized, Double-blind, Controlled Study,” evaluated 117 adults over 60 years of age during 12 months using measurements that included body composition, strength, functionality and questionnaires. Participants were randomly assigned to four groups: control with no exercise; HMB and Vitamin D3 with no exercise; control and exercise; and HMB, Vitamin D3 and exercise.

Recent research showed the potential of calcium and Vitamin D3 supplementation to enhance muscle strength and physical functionality in older adults.

That’s why a colossal effort was required: When the principal investigators at Iowa State University struggled to recruit enough study participants, they contacted DMU’s office of research and physical therapy faculty; soon a contract was developed to engage DMU as a secondary trial site to perform the extensive screening process and provide interventions for each group. Carol Ruby, a certified personal trainer in the DMU Wellness Center, led multiple individualized exercise and strength training sessions per week; she and students recorded the participants’ vital signs prior to each session. For the non-exercise groups, Carol provided monthly sessions in the wellness center on health topics for older adults. She also managed the monthly distribution of supplements and placebos to participants, whose blood, blood pressure, heart rate, body composition and function were evaluated at Iowa State every three months through the year.

All that required massive amounts of schedule coordination, data tracking, communication among the researchers and assistance from DMU’s wellness center, research and grants office, human resources department and the DMU Family Medicine Clinic.

“There were a ton of moving parts in this study,” says Kristin Lowry, P.T., Ph.D., associate professor of physical therapy at DMU. “The results are important, but so were the hard work and collaboration of everyone involved who helped us achieve those results.”

The study demonstrated the potential of HMB and Vitamin D3 supplementation to enhance muscle strength and physical functionality in older adults, even in individuals who don’t exercise. While exercise in conjunction with nutrition has many beneficial physical, mental and emotional effects, the findings are important because a significant portion of older adults are either unable or unwilling to exercise regularly.

“Individuals as they age aren’t able to exercise as much as they used to,” says John Rathmacher, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a scientist with MTI Bio Tech Inc. at the Iowa State University Research Park in Ames. “And for those who are recovering from an injury or surgery, this supplementation could be beneficial.”

In addition to Dr. Rathmacher, Dr. Lowry and Carol Ruby, other authors were Lisa Pitchford, Ph.D., also with MTI Bio Tech and in the kinesiology department at Iowa State; her department colleagues Paul Khoo, Hector Angus, M.S., James Lang, Ph.D., and Rick Sharp, Ph.D.; Alex Krajek, a DMU research assistant; and John Fuller Jr., Ph.D., with Metabolic Technologies LLC, Missoula, MT.

Countering age-related losses of muscle mass and function has great potential to improve health and quality of life among older adults, the study states. Lean body mass decreases at a rate of about 8 percent per decade past the age of 40 and accelerates to about 15 percent per decade after the age of 70. Lean body mass decreases are accompanied by reduced muscular strength and physical function. Together, those losses increase risks of falls, morbidity, loss of independence and death.  

Extensive evidence shows exercise, both aerobic and resistance training, results in improved skeletal muscle strength and mass and balance in older adults. Prior to this study, however, only “modest” evidence existed whether nutritional interventions can help reduce age-related loss of muscle mass and strength.

While the pandemic has increased the challenge of recruiting research participants – nearly 600 older adults were screened for this study alone – the researchers hope to study the impact of HMB and Vitamin D3 supplementation with older, more frail individuals.

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