Belzunce MA, Henckel J, Di Laura A, et al. Gender similarities and differences in skeletal muscle and body composition: an MRI study of recreational cyclists.


You can find the full paper here


Tell us more about yourself and the author team

I am an imaging scientist and a keen runner. In addition to my research, I enjoy promoting physical activity and have recently won gold medals in the 5K and 1500m races at the World Transplant Games.

This paper is part of a research program, Exercise for Science (www.exerciseforscience.org), led by Alister Hart, an orthopaedic surgeon, professor of orthopaedics at UCL and lifelong outdoor exerciser (kayaking, running, cycling, skiing and hiking).

Johann is an orthopaedic surgeon, Anna is an orthopaedic engineer and Laura did her PhD with the team and works in science media. All have joined Alister and me on group outdoor exercise activities and we find great value, for our research and well-being, from our group “hike and talk” and “kayak and talk” sessions.

We all work at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital.


What is the story behind your study?

Our group has taken a novel approach to researching exercise. We used high-resolution MRI scans with dedicated protocols to enhance the edges of muscles and AI methods to accurately and quickly create a large human library of the walking, running and cycling muscles around the hips and spine.

Since 2018 we have included novice marathon runners, ultra-marathon runners, cyclists, and those who’ve taken on the NHS Couch-to-5K (C25K) fitness challenge.

In this paper, we focused on recreational cyclists as cycling has gained popularity as a means to stay fit and active among middle-aged adults and because the potential benefits of lifelong aerobic exercise on muscle health have not been adequately studied (different to the cardiovascular benefits that have been extensively proved).

Whilst undertaking this study, we realized that gender differences have not been properly explored with more specific metrics, such as the intramuscular fat content of specific muscles.

A second trigger was the ongoing debate on the inclusion of transgender athletes in competitive sports.


In your own words, what did you find?

We found that the gluteal muscles were very similar between men and women in terms of size and fat content when body size was considered. This was an interesting finding, as men and women have different patterns of body fat distribution in this region.


What was the main challenge you faced in your study?

The main challenge for this study was the collection of large numbers of MRI scans from healthy people and the ability to process them rapidly. Undertaking MRI studies is challenging, as they are very expensive, and it can take a long time to collect the data for 50 or more volunteers. Our previous MRI studies helped us to develop the optimum MRI protocol, human muscle library and computer software tools to quickly and accurately process the data.

Surprisingly, recruitment was less of a challenge than we expected because it seems that volunteers are very keen to take part in our research.


If there is one take-home message from your study, what would that be?

These findings challenge existing assumptions about gender-based differences in muscle mass and quality. More research is needed to understand gender similarities and differences in muscle health and sports science to achieve a more informed and equitable approach to health, sports science and disease prevention.

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