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Am J Phys Anthropol. 1998 Jan;105(1):21-31.

Superior exercise performance in lifelong Tibetan residents of 4,400 m compared with Tibetan residents of 3,658 m.

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Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado at Denver, 80217-3364, USA.


Few environments challenge human populations more than high altitude, since the accompanying low oxygen pressures (hypoxia) are pervasive and impervious to cultural modification. Work capacity is an important factor in a population's ability to thrive in such an environment. The performance of work or exercise is a measure of the integrated functioning of the O2 transport system, with maximal O2 uptake (.VO2max) a convenient index of that function. Hypoxia limits the ability to transport oxygen: maximal O2 uptake decreases with ascent to high altitude, and years of high altitude residence do not restore sea level .VO2max values. Since Tibetans live and work at some of the highest altitudes in the world, their ability to exercise at very high altitude (>4,000 m) may define the limits of human adaptation to hypoxia. We transported 20 Tibetan lifelong residents of > or =4,400 m down to 3,658 m in order to compare them with 16 previously studied Tibetan residents of Lhasa (3,658 m). The two groups of Tibetans were matched for age, weight, and height. All studies were performed in Lhasa within 3 days of the 4,400 m Tibetans' arrival. Standard test protocol and criteria were used for attaining .VO2max on a Monark bicycle ergometer, while measuring oxygen uptake (.VO2, ml/kg - min STPD), heart rate (bpm), minute ventilation (VE, 1/min BTPS), and arterial oxygen saturation (SaO2, %). The 4,400 m compared with 3,658 m residents had, at maximal effort, similar .VO2 (48.5 +/- 1.2 vs. 51.2 +/- 1.4 ml/kg - min, P = NS), higher workload attained (211 +/- 6 vs. 177 +/- 7 watts, P < 0.01), lower heart rate(176 +/- 2 vs. 191 +/- 2 bpm, P < 0.01), lower ventilation (127 +/- 5 vs. 149 +/- 5 l/min BTPS, P < 0.01), and similar SaO2(81.9 +/- 1.0 vs. 83.7 +/- 1.2%, P = NS). Furthermore, over the range of submaximal workloads, 4,400 m compared with 3,658 m Tibetans had lower .VO2 (P < 0.01), lower heart rates (P < 0.01), and lower ventilation (P < 0.01) and SaO2 (P < 0.05). We conclude that Tibetans living at 4,400 m compared with those residing at 3,658 m achieve greater work performance for a given .VO2 at submaximal and maximal workloads with less cardiorespiratory effort.

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