Omaha’s weather is notorious for its extremes. The summers are humid, and average temperature is below freezing during some winter months. How do our bodies respond to these extreme conditions? Those are the questions that are being explored by researchers from the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) College of Education.
Located in the Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (HPER) building is an environmental chamber. The chamber is capable of simulating extreme weather conditions. Assistant professor Dr. Dustin Slivka and a team of researchers have been using the chamber to see how our bodies react to varying levels of heat, humidity, and altitude.
“We are now starting to discover what is going on inside the skeletal muscle from the cellular level and how that may ultimately affect function,” said Slivka.
Take the mitochondria, for example. You may remember it from your grade school biology class as the “powerhouse of the cell.” Slivka says recently the mitochondria is getting attention for being a critical component of different disease pathologies such as diabetes, peripheral artery disease, and metabolic disease. Mitochondrial dysfunction is also the leading hypothesis for aging.
“We are looking into ways where, basically, if you work out under certain conditions, can you hasten or enhance some of these adaptations in the muscle to the mitochondria?” said Slivka. Some of their evidence says working out in the cold can do this.
The research being conducted has some high level implications. With funding coming from the Department of Defense, there are military applications. However, the research also lends itself to general health.
“Ultimately, we want to lead to an increase in function from both the elite athletes of our military force, to diseased populations,” Slivka added.
The researchers take muscle samples from participants before and after workouts in the different conditions. Once they have the samples, they look at what kind of signals the muscles were receiving that led to adaptations in the mitochondria, and relate that to the signals that were received during workouts at different levels of heat, humidity, and altitude.
So is it a good idea to go on a run outside on a hot and humid day? Slivka says that it depends on the individual. The most important thing is to listen to your body. This is especially important on days when there is a high humidity index, and the temperature outside is higher than our body temperature (98.6 degrees). For most people, these are conditions that our muscles are not used to.
“The reality is most of us work in a nice, cool office, and then we go to our air-conditioned homes,” Slivka added.