Musculoskeletal research at IUPUI helps people stave off loss of bone and muscle due to aging

Physical activity's role in people's lives from childhood to old age has fascinated IUPUI researchers in the Center for Translational Musculoskeletal Research since it was launched in 2010.

Based in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences since its inception, the center explores bone and muscle health, often in connection with exercise and physical activity.Stuart Warden of the physical therapy department -- and also the school's associate dean for research -- is the founding director.

The campus's role in the field will grow this month with the launch of the new Indiana Center for Musculoskeletal Health, primarily housed in the School of Medicine. Warden's goal is to integrate the two centers to expedite the translation of research findings, with his facility remaining a resource for those on campus and beyond who are interested in assessing body composition, muscle and bone health, and functional performance of subjects in research studies.

The Center for Translational Musculoskeletal Research has focused on how bones and muscle can change over a lifetime. Exploring the role played by exercise and physical activity, for ages ranging from the very young to the very old, is exciting for researchers.

Tommy John and Stuart Warden

Tommy John and Stuart Warden

"Our work is really diverse," Warden said. "It can focus on inpatient services in hospitals, and then shift to treating and evaluating elite athletes."

The role of exercise for children is important, but no more intriguing for the researchers than getting a deeper understanding of the aging process and its role in understanding the risk of falls, osteoporosis and other health issues that come with the loss of bone mass and muscle strength as we get older.

A lot of the research starts in laboratories through the study of animal models. "But another part is to translate those findings to humans," Warden said. "We want to make our work relevant to human health."

IUPUI's role as a health campus makes it ideal. "We have tremendous breadth and depth of projects that relate to our field, and having so many hospitals around gives us access to projects and patients that other universities and institutions simply don't have," he said.

Faculty members play vital roles, Warden said, but one of the center's great assets is students who are part of the team. He noted that many professional students, except those in occupational therapy, are not required to do hands-on research and want to be clinicians.

"However, many end up making significant contributions to faculty projects working part-time as research assistants, and some ultimately come back to complete research doctoral degrees," he said. And that fulfills another goal: to enhance the quality of the field.

Researchers have shown that exercise should be strongly promoted during the early years to promote lifelong bone health, and findings also indicate that exercise later in life is still a benefit. Warden says that 60 minutes of daily exercise, particularly in weight-bearing activities such as running, jumping rope, basketball and other sports, is a good way to build and maintain muscle and bone strength and balance, and reduce the risk of falls and other issues later in life.

"We know that the loss of bone and muscle beyond the age of 50 continues at a rate of 1 to 2 percent per year," Warden said. "But even as we get older, regular exercise can help us live better, healthier lives."