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Supplements can help active seniors bulk up

OCTOBER 3, 2007 AT 7:46 AM EDT

Seniors looking to get more bang for their exercise buck may benefit from popping an over-thecounter nutritional supplement every day, according to new research.

Exercise has already been proven to combat the loss of muscle mass. But adding two supplements commonly found in health-food stores, creatine monohydrate and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), can boost the effects of exercise, according to research published today in the peer-reviewed online journal of the Public Library of Science, PLoS One.

Creatine, a compound produced by the body and naturally occurring in meat that helps supply energy to muscles, and CLA, a naturally occurring fatty acid, appeared to help study participants build muscle while shedding fat, says Mark Tarnopolsky, the lead researcher and a professor of medicine and pediatrics at McMaster University.

The supplements appear to work only in combination with exercise, and most of the benefit comes from activity. "No one has a weight-loss miracle cure - if they did, they'd be a billionaire," Dr. Tarnopolsky said. "If you're sitting on your keister, the creatine does nothing for you and the CLA probably does nothing for you."

Thirty-nine people aged 65 or older took part in the trial, in which all performed regular resistance training over the course of six months. All showed improvements in function and strength, but those who took the supplements instead of a placebo showed a greater improvement in muscle mass and fat loss.

Those who took the supplements in the study on average gained 2.1 kilograms of muscle mass and lost 1.9 kilograms of body fat. Those who took a placebo gained 0.9 kilograms of muscle mass and lost only 400 grams of body fat.

While he studied only the senior demographic, Dr. Tarnopolsky says he can see baby boomers extrapolating from the study's results.

"For the overweight, middle-aged person or the older adult who is starting to exercise ... at least in the short term this combination does appear to get people to where they want to go a little bit faster."

Previous studies had shown creatine worked to increase muscle mass, but had no effect on fat. Data on CLA were mixed for humans; animal studies had shown the supplement's ability to decrease fat.

Creatine has also received somewhat of a bad rap: Though legal, it's been linked with steroid use and other illegal doping in the world of sport. But athletes take the compound at much higher doses, and even at those doses Dr. Tarnopolsky questions whether they would be performance-enhancing.

To maximize safety, Dr. Tarnopolsky consulted hundreds of studies on creatine as well as on CLA to determine the lowest possible dose. He administered five grams of creatine and six grams of
CLA daily.

Without supplements, adults normally get between one and 1.5 grams a day of creatine from food.

In some Nordic countries, he says, a diet high in cold-water fish results in intakes of close to five grams a day.

The only side effects at the dosages he administered are gastrointestinal upset in 5 per cent of people.

But he warns that some nutritional supplements contain 20-gram doses. "All bets are off if you put someone on 20 g," he says.

Hamilton resident Chris Dunn, 71, who took supplements in the study, has no doubt the combination worked for him. He noticed a marked increase in strength during his weight-training sessions. "It was amazing; quite noticeable," he says.

Elizabeth and Michael, who asked that their last names not be used, described themselves as anti-vitamin and say they were skeptical of the supplements. Already active at 75 and 77 respectively - the married couple regularly ski and hike Ontario's Bruce Trail -they volunteered for the study primarily for the supervised exercise program.

Both say they feel they benefited. "Health doesn't come in a bottle," Elizabeth says. "But I feel pretty good."

Michael, a former family doctor, says he wants to read the results of the study before deciding whether they might add a supplement to their breakfast routine.

Dr. Tarnopolsky suspects further research may show that the effects drop off after six months, in which case the supplements may only be of benefit in the early stages of a new exercise program. But that's a good thing, he says.

"If people see changes happening, they're more likely to stay with the program," he says. "Any way we can improve compliance and get people to stick with exercise, we're going to see the effects. Folks even in their 90s can improve."

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