The desire to obtain a long and healthy life drives people on a quest to search the headlines, browse the Internet, explore the grocery store shelves and flock to the gym. The prize they seek is the latest news, products and exercises that will improve their nutritional intake, fitness and overall health.
At the Appalachian State University (ASU) Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, director David Nieman, DrPH, FACSM, and his research team are on the same quest. Their tools of inquiry include treadmills, stationary bicycles, swimming pools, metabolic chambers and bod pods. Working with industry and academic partners, they seek what Nieman, an ASU professor of health and exercise science, considers “practical answers” to the questions surrounding health, exercise and nutrition that help peak human performance.
Nieman is a recognized authority in the areas of exercise immunology and sports nutrition, obesity, aging and nutritional assessment. He’s often quoted in poplar media and has published more than 200 peer-reviewed publications, over 300 health and fitness articles and authored nine books. His research team at the Human Performance Lab includes Andy Shanely, PhD, and Amy Knab, PhD, both of whom are ASU assistant professors of exercise science, and Research Scientist Lynn Cialdella Kam, MBA, MA, PhD, who manages the biochemistry laboratory. Research Manager Pamela Krasen, MS, and Research Associate Dustin Dew work together to recruit participants and manage the lab’s studies.
In more technical terms, the goals of the Human Performance Lab are to research the affects of exercise and nutrition on human health by understanding the effects of plant-molecules on age-related loss of muscle mass, muscle mitochondrial biogenesis and exercise-induced changes in immune function, oxidative stress and inflammation. The research focus and established relationships with beverage, food, nutritional supplement and pharmaceutical companies has made the Human Performance Lab a resource for product testing. Dole Foods, the largest marketer and seller of fruits and vegetables, is one of the corporations that engages the Human Performance Lab to conduct studies.
“Dole is very interested in most aspects of human health, particularly as they pertain to cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” said Nicholas D. Gillitt, director of the Dole Foods Nutrition Research Lab at the NCRC. “One of the things we are interested in is how nutrients from fruits and vegetables can influence how well you can train or how well you can recover after training. So having David Nieman, who is one of the premiere exercise physiologists in the world, and his group located on the NCRC, in fact in the same building, is very advantageous.”
The advantage is translating into scientific findings and new products. A recent Dole and ASU study that is slated for publication in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that milled chia seeds versus whole seeds supply higher levels of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is an omega-3 fatty acid essential to human metabolism that can only be obtained through consuming fish or plants. Partnering on chia studies with ASU has contributed to a better understanding of the seeds’ nutritional benefits and the development of a Dole line of chia-based products.
Dole is taking a similar approach to better defining the health benefits of bananas. “We compared bananas as an energy source to a carbohydrate drink that is commercially available,” Gillitt said. “It is interesting that the particular energy drink that we used had millions of dollars spent on development, and it turns out that a natural banana does the same thing.”
In response to consumer interest, Dole is researching concentrated, freeze dried powders made from fruits and vegetables that can provide the nutritional benefits in conveniently packaged portions. ASU and Dole are planning studies with Olympic-level swimmers. They are also planning studies involving a powder with concentrated fruit and vegetable polyphenols and antioxidants developed by Mary Ann Lila, PhD, director of the NC State University Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) at the NCRC, and Rutgers University.
“Everybody should eat fruits and vegetables and should be buying them,” Gillitt said, “but it is impractical or expensive in some parts of the world. If we can supply products that go towards getting rid of that problem, we are very interested in them.”
Not all of the research at the Human Performance Lab contributes to product development. Many of the Human Performance Lab’s studies expand the knowledge-base surrounding the benefits of exercise. First published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise in February 2011, the ASU lab found that 45-minutes of vigorous exercise increased metabolic rate for 14 hours post-workout. The Human Performance Lab’s study was one of the first to use a metabolic chamber. After exercising vigorously for two days, the third day the study participants’ metabolic rate was measured in the chamber located in the UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute on the NCRC. Data showed that the metabolism of study participants remained high for 14 hours after exercise burning up to 190 additional calories. The study dispelled previous research that showed metabolic rates increasing for only an hour or two after exercise.
Exercise can also ward off the common cold. In a 12-week study led by Nieman’s team, people walked every day for 45 minutes or remained sedentary. Published in November 2010 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) of those who walked regularly was reduced by 43 percent. Study participants with a higher fitness level saw a 46 percent reduction in UTRI lending credibility to the fact that regular exercise can prevent illness.
“We do some very practical studies in our lab,” Nieman said. “We answer the questions that provide people with the information that they really need.” Information that helps them peak their human performance.