Dublin City University's Dr Niall Moyna is pioneering alarming new research which may change the way we think about exercise, diet and heart disease. Be warned: don't read this while eating a burger and fries. By Jennifer O'Connell
Dr Niall Moyna takes the three flights of stairs in the Albert College Building at Dublin City University two at a time. He crosses the conference room in two fast strides, pumps my hand 'hello', pulls up a chair and begins to talk.
We talk hypertrophic stimuli, arteriosclerosis, endothelial function. We're halfway through the links between childhood obesity and type II diabetes when it occurs to me that he hasn't taken a breath yet.
Moyna literally bristles with energy. He doesn't so much sit on his chair as maintain a fleeting contact between it and various parts of his body.
It's easy to see why he thought, as a boy, that he might become an Olympic athlete. At 15, he was training for hours every day, and buying medical texts to see if he could figure out how to make his heart work better. When the large yellow vans which carried on-board x-ray machines to screen for tuberculosis came round to his school, the Marist College in Dundalk, the medics were alarmed at the size of his heart. "They thought I had a rare form of heart disease," chuckles Moyna.
"Of course, nobody thought to ask me whether I took exercise. So I was rushed off in an ambulance to St Vincent's Hospital for tests. There, they explained to me in simple terms how the heart responds to regular exercise by increasing in size. And as I sat there listening, it was like a light bulb went off in my head. I thought, this is something I'd really love to study."
He didn't make it to the Olympics: "I eventually realised that the only way to become an Olympian is to choose the right parents," but his passion for sport led him to an area he is, if today's example is anything to go by - at least as zealous about.
Moyna is part of a group of researchers around the world looking at the long-term effects of the increased levels in obesity among children. He uses ultrasound to measure the diameter of the blood vessels. He says that blood vessels should get wider when the amount of blood flowing through them increases. If the blood vessel diameter fails to increase or increases only slightly in response to increases in blood flow, then this is a sign of heart disease. What he has uncovered is terrifying. "We took two groups of kids - one of normal weight, and the other severely obese. At 11 or 12, they already weighed between 18 and 23 stone - two of them were so big, they couldn't sit on the exercise bicycle. We had to tape their feet to the pedals.
"Our tests found that the ability of the arteries in the kids of normal weight to dilate was 100% better than that of the obese kids. It's staggering. These kids were already being treated for type II diabetes and were showing signs of advanced heart disease. By the time they are in their twenties, they'll be presenting with clinical conditions normally only seen in 50 and 60 year old individuals with diabetes." Moyna believes that if the current trend in obesity levels among children continues, we will be faced with similar problems within a decade.
But it's not all bad news. The second stage in Moyna's research will, he believes, show that exercise can reverse this trend. After eight weeks' of training for 50 minutes, three times a week, the body mass index (a measure of obesity) has fallen in every one of the obese kids, their blood pressure has dropped and there has been an 11-fold increase in the ability of their arteries to dilate. "It seems that regular exercise can reverse the damage to blood vessels in adolescents with diabetes," states Moyna.
Moyna adds "It's funny, when I left school, I wasn't interested in helping sick people. I wanted to make great athletes."
Exercise physiology was still in its infancy in Ireland, so he studied physical education in what is now the University of Limerick, before heading to the US and Purdue University in Indiana.
It was there he discovered that sportsmen are born, not made. "One morning we had a trackmeet, and one of our hurdlers didn't show up. We asked a young African-American guy called Rod Woodson who played on the football team, to stand in, though he hadn't done hurdles since he was in high school. He came down, ran the hurdles, and ran the fastest time in the world that year. That was when I gave up thinking I could put in what God left out."
He turned his attention from the "top 0.01 percent", and became interested in how exercise can benefit the other 99.99 percent. His studies in psycho-neuroimmunolgy - "literally, how stress causes illness and how exercise helps you to cope with stress," at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, and later in the effects of childhood obesity at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, led him to the research on obesity he's currently conducting at DCU.
"There's a big Hispanic community in Hartford, and they have huge problems with obesity. It was a cultural thing. Women would come into our clinics massively overweight, and when you'd talk to them about it, they'd say, 'well, my husband likes me like this.' Then the kids would learn it from their parents and the pattern would be repeated."
These children were to form the subjects for his earliest tests on obesity. "One of the first studies we did was to give them a single high-fat meal, an Egg McMuffin sandwich, and measure the ability of their blood vessels to dilate before and after eating it. We found that after eating it, their blood vessels didn't dilate like they should, because of the increase in cholesterol levels in their blood following the meal. After just one meal it took up to six hours for the blood vessels to return to normal."
After he's left, bounding back down the stairs and outside for his 20-minute run, I quietly put the remains of my half-eaten Danish pastry back on the plate.
Picture on right:Dr Niall Moyna monitoring an exercise test of Catherine McGowan, a second year sport science and health student
Jennifer O'Connell is a graduate of DCU's MA in Journalism 1998 and features editor of The Sunday Business Post.
First published in the DCU Alumni Magazine in 2002