At the heart of exercise scientist Summer Cook’s research lies a deceptively simple question: What causes people to get stronger? But between her and the answer is a lab full of complex equipment, some data analysis wizardry — and a gadget that bears a strong similarity to an old-fashioned blood pressure cuff.
Cook’s primary research, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, focuses on building leg strength in older adults — 65-plus — who are at risk of losing mobility and with it their independence because of injury or illness. “We use our legs for almost anything we do: to walk, to get out of a chair, to climb stairs,” says Cook, honored by the American College of Sports Medicine with its New Investigators award.
Because lifting heavy weights, the traditional method for building muscle, may not be accessible to older adults who may have injuries or arthritis, Cook is evaluating the effectiveness of an alternative muscle-building method called low-load, blood-flow-restricted exercise. In this method, subjects lift very light weights while a cuff much like one used to take blood pressure restricts oxygen to the muscle. “There’s not enough oxygen to the working muscles so they fatigue faster,” says Cook, an associate professor of kinesiology.
As baby boomers age and live longer, understanding how to keep older adults strong and independent is a growing field. “This could be a viable alternative to high-load training,” Cook says.