Slovenian studies show physical inactivity extremely damaging

Koper, 14 December - Physical inactivity has become a major mortality factor as lack of exercise can damage the human organism beyond repair. The effects of inactivity are a major field of research and Slovenian researchers have been trailblazers in this area, among them Rado Pišot, the director of the Koper Scientific Research Centre (ZRC Koper) and researcher at the centre's Institute for Kinesiology Research.

Director of the Koper Scientific Research Centre Rado Pišot.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Director of the Koper Scientific Research Centre Rado Pišot.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Pišot says that all segments of research in this field study the human body's mechanisms of adaptation to the absence of the force of gravity, and they started off in efforts to understand how the human body can adapt to space travel.

In the course of evolution, gravitation has shaped the human body's skeletal, nervous, cardiovascular and respiratory systems. In the absence of activity, these systems start to gradually adapt to the absence of the effects of gravity.

Over the years, the research has re-focused on the sedentary and older population, in order to study mechanisms that affect the decline of the human body's systems, and to detect mechanisms for the recovery of functional abilities after long periods of physical inactivity.

Over fifteen years ago, Pišot and Igor Mekjavić from the Jožef Stefan Institute launched the first example of a study known as a bed rest study. It was conducted at the Valdoltra Orthopaedic Hospital in 2001. Since then, researchers from ZRC Koper have conducted multiple studies in collaboration with scientists from abroad examining the effects of simulated weightlessness and complete physical inactivity on the human body.

Comparative studies of inactivity among youths and the elderly

Two extensive studies designed to understand the effects of physical inactivity have been conducted in the past four years in the framework of the international project PANGEA (Physical Activity and Nutrition for Great Ageing). The results have been published in a series of papers in international high-impact journals.

Comparative studies about the effect of simulated weightlessness on healthy older and younger adults exposed to identical inactivity conditions have led the researchers to two partially conflicting findings that were presented in a paper in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

The researchers found that the effect of inactivity on muscle mass and function, and the consequent functional decline, is much stronger in older men, but the metabolic alterations, whose mechanisms have a compound and long-term effect, are stronger in younger men. Analysis of the time and mechanisms of recovery have shown that it is more difficult for older men to re-establish the baseline.

Since both the harmful effects of inactivity and the recovery are more difficult in older people, it is even more important that this populations live an active lifestyle and avoid or at least minimise periods of inactivity. This should also be considered when emergency hospitalisation is needed, said Pišot.

"It is not good for any age group to be inactive for longer periods. Older people quickly drop below the baseline and recovery is more difficult, but the consequences of inactivity are also present in younger people - they are more long-term and may be much more profound than in older people," Pišot said.

Impact of cognitive training on decline in motor abilities

The researchers additionally examined whether it is possible to mitigate the decline in physical ability just by doing cognitive training. They conducted daily computer-supported cognitive training with a group of older people whereby the subjects "walked around virtual worlds".

While the subjects were completely physically inactive, they attempted to preserve the function of movement at the central level, i.e. the level at which movement forms in the motor part of the brain and gets ready for action, but movement is not triggered at the level of skeletal muscle.

The researchers confirmed that computer-aided cognitive training slows the degeneration of locomotory mechanisms at the level of motor control, and by extension the degeneration of motor abilities; it also accelerates the recovery of physical function.

Such findings have a significant potential applicability in clinical physiology, space physiology, gerontology and rehabilitation. The researchers hope the findings, which were presented this year in the journal Aging, will soon be translated into healthcare practice.

At present, these findings are being upgraded with two studies at Valdoltra Hospital, where the effects of cognitive training before and after hip surgery and in patients with chronic knee injury are being examined. The research will be additionally expanded with the recently confirmed Interreg SLO-IT MEMORI-net project, which involves the development of protocols for cognitive and motor rehabilitation in stroke patients.

Success in sports treatment and diagnostics

The Institute for Kinesiology Research received two major recognitions in 2015: the football club Barcelona formally recognised its innovative procedures in the monitoring of sport injuries, whereas the FIFA Medical Committee declared it a FIFA Medical Centre of Excellence.

In conjunction with the Izola General Hospital, it was recently accredited by the Slovenian Olympic Committee as an Olympic reference medical centre for monitoring and diagnostics for top Slovenian athletes.

The project QSPort, launched in October this year in conjunction with the Slovenian Olympic Committee and sports associations, will meanwhile focus on sports injuries, which have the potential to profoundly alter the careers and personal lives of active athletes. One of the goals of the project is to make sure athletes can safely return to competition after injury with the help of measurements of the electro-mechanic efficiency of muscles.

About Rado Pišot

Pišot earned his bachelor's and master's degrees and PhD at the Faculty of Sport, University of Ljubljana. He is the founder of the Institute for Kinesiology Research, which he headed for a decade. As tenured professor, he taught subjects related to motor development, motor learning and the theory of kinesiology science.

He also served as dean of the Faculty of Education, University of Primorsko, and the university's prorector for science and research. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the director of the Scientific Research Centre at the University of Primorsko before he was named the director of the Koper Scientific Research Centre.

Pišot is deeply involved in professional work in sport. As a member of the board of the Slovenian Association of Ski Teachers and Trainers, he has been active in Alpine skiing for many years, and as a member of the Professional Staff Commission at the Slovenian Football Association. He was also a member of the National Council for Sport.