A contributing factor to the loss of muscle mass and strength with adult aging is the reduction in the number of functioning motor units (MUs). Recently, we reported that lifelong competitive runners (master runners = ∼66 yr) had greater numbers of MUs in a leg muscle (tibialis anterior) than age-matched recreationally active controls. This suggested that long-term exposure to high levels of physical activity may limit the loss of MU numbers with adult aging. However, it is unknown if this finding is the result of long-term activation of the specifically exercised motoneuron pool (i.e., tibialis anterior) or an overall systemic neuroprotective effect of high levels of physical activity.
Purpose: The purpose was to estimate the number of functioning MUs (MUNEs) in the biceps brachii (an upper body muscle not directly loaded by running) of nine young (27 ± 5 yr) and nine old (70 ± 5 yr) men and nine lifelong competitive master runners (67 ± 4 yr).
Methods: Decomposition-enhanced spike-triggered averaging was used to measure surface and intramuscular EMG signals during elbow flexion at 10% of maximum voluntary isometric contraction.
Results: Derived MUNEs were lower in the biceps brachii of runners (185 ± 69 MUs) and old men (133 ± 69 MUs) than the young (354 ± 113 MUs), but the old and master runners were similar.
Conclusions: Although there were no significant differences in MUNE between both older groups in the biceps brachii muscle, with the number of subjects tested here, we cannot eliminate the possibility of some whole-body neuroprotective effect. However, when compared with the remote biceps muscle, a greater influence on age-related spinal motoneuron survival was found in a chronically activated MN pool specific to the exercised muscle.