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J Physiol. 2009 Jan 15;587(2):477-90. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2008.162271. Epub 2008 Dec 1.

On the mechanisms that limit oxygen uptake during exercise in acute and chronic hypoxia: role of muscle mass.

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The Copenhagen Muscle Research Centre, Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen N, Denmark.


Peak aerobic power in humans (VO2,peak) is markedly affected by inspired O2 tension (FIO2). The question to be answered in this study is what factor plays a major role in the limitation of muscle peak VO2 in hypoxia: arterial O2 partial pressure (Pa,O2) or O2 content (Ca,O2)? Thus, cardiac output (dye dilution with Cardio-green), leg blood flow (thermodilution), intra-arterial blood pressure and femoral arterial-to-venous differences in blood gases were determined in nine lowlanders studied during incremental exercise using a large (two-legged cycle ergometer exercise: Bike) and a small (one-legged knee extension exercise: Knee)muscle mass in normoxia, acute hypoxia (AH) (FIO2 = 0.105) and after 9 weeks of residence at 5260 m (CH). Reducing the size of the active muscle mass blunted by 62% the effect of hypoxia on VO2,peak in AH and abolished completely the effect of hypoxia on VO2,peak after altitude acclimatization. Acclimatization improved Bike peak exercise Pa,O2 from 34 +/- 1 in AH to 45 +/- 1 mmHg in CH(P <0.05) and Knee Pa,O2 from 38 +/- 1 to 55 +/- 2 mmHg(P <0.05). Peak cardiac output and leg blood flow were reduced in hypoxia only during Bike. Acute hypoxia resulted in reduction of systemic O2 delivery (46 and 21%) and leg O2 delivery (47 and 26%) during Bike and Knee, respectively, almost matching the corresponding reduction in VO2,peak. Altitude acclimatization restored fully peak systemic and leg O(2) delivery in CH (2.69 +/- 0.27 and 1.28 +/- 0.11 l min(-1), respectively) to sea level values (2.65 +/- 0.15 and 1.16 +/- 0.11 l min(-1), respectively) during Knee, but not during Bike. During Knee in CH, leg oxygen delivery was similar to normoxia and, therefore, also VO2,peak in spite of a Pa,O2 of 55 mmHg. Reducing the size of the active mass improves pulmonary gas exchange during hypoxic exercise, attenuates the Bohr effect on oxygen uploading at the lungs and preserves sea level convective O2 transport to the active muscles. Thus, the altitude-acclimatized human has potentially a similar exercising capacity as at sea level when the exercise model allows for an adequate oxygen delivery (blood flow x Ca,O2), with only a minor role of Pa,O2 per se, when Pa,O2 is more than 55 mmHg.

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