What are myokines, and what effect do they have on the body?

Original Content Posted By: Vicki-Marie Cossar Wednesday 16 Jun 2021 6:43 am on Metro


You’ve probably heard of the ‘happy hormones’ like dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. But what about myokines?

These new kids on the chemical block are still in the early stages of research, however they are thought to be responsible for even more health benefits when it comes to exercise.

There are lots of studies to show that people who exercise regularly benefit from a positive mood and lower rates of depression, among other things.And this is thought to be down to the primary four chemicals (endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin).

When you exercise, they interact with the receptors in your brain to trigger feelings of happiness during and after a workout.

This is often why you’ll hear people talk about a runner’s high. ‘These chemicals are thought to be mostly secreted inside the brain and by the central nervous system,’ explains Dr Michael Joyner MD, a Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist and physiologist who researches exercise physiology.

They are responsible for the pleasure centers. Any form of physical activity can release them, so that could be a HIIT class or simply a walk in the park. However, new research suggests these are not the only rewards happening inside your body when you exercise.

‘For a long time, scientists have thought there was more to muscle than just burning calories, creating force and moving limbs,’ says Dr Joyner. ‘It was thought muscle was sending signals to other parts of the body to do different things.

What’s emerged over the last 20 years, most notably recently by Dr Pedersen at the University of Copenhagen, is that there were actual substances being secreted by our skeletal muscle that were having hormone effects on other parts of our body. It’s still being looked into, but these play another role in the health benefits of exercise.’

These substances are called myokines and they are secreted into your blood stream when you contract your muscles. They are thought to have positive effects on everything from cognitive function to blood sugar.

There has been lots of hype and research into muscle/brain crosstalk over recent years, most notably the gut/brain axis. Scientists now know that our skeletal system is an endocrine organ, meaning it secretes hormones and other products directly into the blood, and is ‘talking’ to the brain and other systems around the body.

According to Dr Pedersen’s research, only a few myokines have been allocated to specific function in humans, but the biological roles of these myokines may help with the prescription of exercise for people with things like cancer, diabetes, or neurodegenerative diseases.

Just like our pituitary gland and adrenal gland, our muscles are an endocrine organ,’ says Kelly McGonigal, a US research psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University and author of The Joy Of Movement.

Muscles can synthesize and pump out proteins and peptides into your blood stream and they effect every system in your body.

Some of these myokines (which means set into motion by your muscles) are thought to kill cancer cells, some reduce inflammation, some are good for your immune function, some help regulate blood sugar, and some have their strongest effect on the brain.

Let’s say you go for a walk or lift weights. Your muscles are pumping these chemicals out into your blood stream.

They cross your blood/brain barrier, and in your brain their primary effect is to act as an anti-depressant and change the structure of your brain in ways that make you more resilient to stress.

So, what type of training would help release more of these myokines, we wonder?

While all exercise would release them and there’s no research to say any one discipline is better, Maria Eleftheriou, Psycle’s Head of Barre, says that in barre training the focus is on small, repetitive isometric contractions of the muscles, which should, in theory, cause them to release more of the myokines.

Barre in particular would be good for muscle contraction as you are spending an extended period of time under tension with the moves,’ she explains.

Moves in the class consist of eccentric contractions (causing the muscle to elongate while contracted) and isometric contractions (the muscle contracts without changing length.

Barre is also low-impact, high-intensity training. We’re at a ballet barre but it’s not a ballet class. Instead, you’re doing full body integration moves with a focus on specific muscles each time.

When you do something like HIIT or circuits you’re mainly using Type II muscle fibers (fast twitch). These give the explosive movements, but they also fatigue quicker.

In Barre, we place the emphasis on Type I (slow twitch) muscle fibers and this means you can keep them going for longer, says Maria. They tremble like a little motor system and this means that the muscle fibre is then getting broken down and repaired back stronger and leaner.

How to barre at home

If you’re looking for something new to try at home, why not give these isometric barre moves a go.

These four moves are my favorite because they use muscles we don’t tend to use every day, explains Maria Eleftheriou, Psycle’s Head of Barre.

This means the intensity of your workout will increase as we invite all these tiny muscles to work and each move is multi-faceted so you get more bang for your buck.

1. Vertical V

This starts with focused tiny movements to strengthen and lean the outer thighs and quads and then leads into some full range movements to increase the intensity.

How to: ‘Place one hand on a piece of furniture with a neutral spine, shoulders over hips and hips over heels. Keeping the heels together at all times, start by dropping down a couple of inches then coming back up again.

Keep a bend in the knees at all times and repeat 30 times. Next drop down further pressing the inner thighs out, not the knees. Hold here for 20 seconds – you should feel the legs shake.

Once you feel the burn, come back to the starting position. Repeat this drop and hold motion ten times.

2. Wall Sit

The wall sit requires a great deal of mental and physical stamina as it’s a long isometric hold that targets quads, posture alignment and core. This kind of exercise builds mental stamina making you more resilient to stress and more connected to your body.

How to: Place your whole back against a wall and sit at 90 degrees like a chair, feet hip-width apart.

Put a cushion between your inner thighs and hold for 30 seconds. From here lift your heels up and down for 30 seconds.

Then, keeping your heels up squeeze the cushion for a further 30 seconds. Finish by contracting your thighs for as long as possible – let the legs shake.

3. Standing Pretzel

We use the front and the back of the body lots in everyday life, but the side muscles are often underused. If you strengthen these corset muscles at the side, the whole abdominal wall becomes stronger and this activates legs, hips, gluteus minimus, gluteus medius and our waistline.

How to: Stand sideways to a chair, with one hand resting on it. Bend the leg closest to the chair and turn that foot in towards it.

Lift the other leg up straight, in line with the hips keeping it extended and contracting all the muscles from the waist and hips down to the ankle. Point the toe.

Lower the leg slowly back down to the floor. Repeat 20 times. Hold the leg out extended to the side and make small clockwise circles with your toe. Repeat 15 times, then 15 times anti-clockwise.

Extend the leg straight out, contract the muscles and make tiny pulses 20 times. Repeat on the other side.

4. Bridge

This is great for the whole body, but targets gluteus maximus, hamstrings, pelvic floor and inner thighs. It’s a great example of low-impact, high-intensity exercise, which will also increase cardiovascular endurance and the circulatory system.

How to: Lie on your back, head down, feet on the floor near your bottom. Raise the hips off the floor, making sure they are square and knees are in line with ankles.

Hands can be on the mat or in the air to make it harder. Raise one leg straight up in the air and lift and lower the hips up and down without touching the floor. Repeat 30 times.

Lower the leg that’s in the air down towards the floor keeping it straight. Repeat 20 times.

Finally, hold the same leg out in line with the other knee and squeeze the inner thighs together as you pulse the hips up and down 20 times. Repeat on the other side.

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