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Exercise Science Research Looks at Benefits of Supplements

FullTextImage/img/@altCapt. Daniel Jaffe and Spencer Buettner ’15 research the effects of beta-alanine on Benjamin Hayes ’15. – VMI Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

LEXINGTON, Va., July 7, 2014 – For cadets struggling with the VMI Fitness Test or one of those physical fitness exams needed for a commission, help just may be on the way.

A research project conducted on post this summer, a joint effort between the physical education and biology departments under the auspices of the departments’ new exercise science minor, is studying the benefits of nutritional supplements in the military setting.

“I know people at my school always take supplements,” said Spencer Buettner ’15, a biology major who is working in conjunction with Capt. Daniel Jaffe, a physical education instructor, on the project. “Why not do a study on something you think is the right one? If it does work, now I have something to give.”

Funded by the Dr. Fred C. Swope Summer Scholars Program, the project will serve as Buettner’s capstone project and as the topic of Jaffe’s doctoral dissertation. It will focus on the effects of the supplement beta-alanine, a naturally occurring substance that can be synthesized by the human body. Beta-alanine is an amino acid – amino acids are the building blocks of protein – and as such it is also regularly consumed as a proponent of protein-rich foods, such as meat and eggs..

Buettner and Jaffe will be concentrating on different outcomes, with the cadet exploring the possibility that the substance may help with performance on the VFT and the professor trying to determine if beta-alanine can be beneficial in strength training.

The idea stemmed from an article concluding that beta-alanine had no benefit in a military setting, but Jaffe took issue with the methodology.

“They basically said it was a worthless supplement for individuals such as the cadets here,” Jaffe said. “The biggest problem I had with that particular article was that [with] all of their research, none of it used an environment such as this. They used sedentary individuals, non-trained college students, and they made these sweeping claims. I’d like to test their theory.”

Now that they have approval to conduct the first research project involving humans at VMI in nearly a decade, Buettner and Jaffe have begun assembling their subjects. After three days of initial testing, which includes strength testing, the VFT, and cardiovascular capacity, half of the subjects will take beta-alanine over the next six weeks. The other half will be given a placebo, and at the end of the six-week period, they will be tested again.

“They might not demonstrate marked improvements in strength, but I’m guessing they will show improvement in body composition and VFT scores,” said Jaffe, who not only teaches physical education classes but also teaches exercise physiology for the biology department as part of the exercise science minor.

This type of research is right up Buettner’s alley. The first sergeant for Company E last year, he was in charge of remedial physical training for members of his company who failed some portion of the VFT. He noted that he was barraged by questions about making improvements on the test, and while he is skeptical about beta-alanine’s positive effects, he is hoping that the supplement will have some benefit so he can provide some answers.

“If you can take the VFT and after six weeks improve, then your chances of improving on your [military] PFT is more likely,” Buettner said.

“Almost every cadet is taking some sort of pre-workout supplement, and almost all of them contain beta-alanine,” added Jaffe. “To do an investigation that explains some of the things they are taking is good.”

And if that investigation can help performance on those required fitness tests, it would be even better.

– Chris Floyd