Myokines: The secret way exercise boosts your health

Professor Mark Febbraio explains how exercising helps you stay healthy in more ways than one.

Before becoming a scientist, I was a professional triathlete. Needless to say, I’m an exercise fanatic and was able to translate that passion into my research.

As the head of the Diabetes and Metabolism Division at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, you’d think that would be the focus of my research. Yet my work is not just about diabetes and metabolism. Rather, it is about the pathways that regulate disease.

Earlier in my career as a scientist (about 15 years ago), we made a breakthrough in understanding the body’s reaction to exercise and what that means for disease. The discovery was that skeletal muscles secrete a protein called ‘Interleukin-6’, previously thought to be only involved in immune function. We coined the term ‘myokine’ to describe proteins released from muscle.

“With every movement, your muscles are contracting and releasing myokines throughout your body to help protect you from major diseases.”

The link between myokines, exercise and disease

Myokines are small proteins that are produced by muscle cells in response to muscular contractions. Once released, myokines travel through the circulatory system to other organs, altering the biology of those organs.

Ultimately, this activity plays a role in protecting the body against metabolic diseases like diabetes, neurological disorders including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and, possibly, certain cancers including breast cancer and colon cancer, where physical exercise is known to be protective.

A possible diabetes treatment

There are many people all around the world that work with myokines. My team has designed and created a synthetic protein (a man-made myokine), called “IC-7” that we’re hoping could be effective in the treatment of diabetes.

IC-7 would act in the same way as a normal myokine. It would travel around the body, interacting with and changing the biology of organs to help the body fight type 2 diabetes. If this proves successful, there is the potential to use this theory across a range of different diseases that myokines are shown to help prevent.

What this means for you

Next time you’re struggling to find the motivation to exercise, think about this. With every movement, your muscles are contracting and releasing myokines throughout your body to help protect you from some of the major diseases impacting society today.

Did you know?

When you exercise, your muscles send messages to other parts of your body. They can tell your fat stores to burn more energy, tell your brain to feel happier and tell your bones to become stronger.

Recommended reading - Issue Eleven Autumn 2015

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