Augusta area rowers provide clues to breathing, fitness

Triathlete Penelope Donkar, 30, is monitored while working out on a rowing machine as part of research at Doctors Hospital that is studying the effect of prolonged aerobic exercise on rowers.

When she was on the rowing team at Washington University, Penelope Donkar’s coach called her “solid” but she thought she might have been a little musclebound. Now a triathlete whose goal is to make the Iron Man world championship, Donkar, 30, has reshaped herself.


“I’m probably in better shape now than I was then,” she said. And that is saying something.

Donkar is one of the Augusta area rowers taking part in a study at Doctors Hospital, in conjunction with the Mayo Clinic, to look at the relationship between exercise, oxygen consumption, fitness and efficiency. The rowers are a good subject for the study because there are a lot of them in the Augusta area, which hosts two major rowing events every year, said Dr. Mehrdad Behnia, a pulmonologist and intensivist at Doctors, who is helping to lead the study.

There are older and younger athletes and men and women who compete. “They’re extremely fit,” he said.

Rowing involves the whole body and large muscle masses in the legs, trunk and arms, and would allow the study to compare oxygen consumption versus legs-only exercises like pedaling an exercise bike, said Chul-Ho Kim, a research fellow at Mayo Clinic.

The results could help clinicians like Behnia.

“The biggest complaint that I get from a patient walking into my office is ‘I’m short of breath. Help me,’” he said “A lot of people get very, very focused on asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and on simple diseases. That’s not necessarily true. We see a lot of patients with chronic shortness of breath, they don’t have any asthma, they don’t have any COPD. They are otherwise healthy. What is going on with them?”

Part of the problem could be what Behnia suspects is an underdiagnosed problem called exercise-induced pulmonary hypertension, where higher blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries can cause problems for the lungs.

“In pulmonary hypertension, one of the hypotheses is that these people have very, very impaired oxygen uptake in their lungs,” Behnia said. But exactly how it is defined and diagnosed has been a source of “tremendous debate between the world leaders in the field,” he said.

Studying the rowers and how their muscles use oxygen would create a baseline for comparison with those who might be impaired in those respects, Behnia said.

“These people who do have early lung disease, how would their physiology of oxygen consumption and muscle metabolism change?” he said “How you could derive those conclusions and apply them to these sick patients and how you could intervene, I think that would be very very important for me.”

Cardiopulmonary tests are often used to help diagnose heart failure patients, for instance, but they could also prove useful in those with lung disease, Kim said.

“The heart and lungs are very closed linked together,” he said. “They influence each other.”


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