How do whites and blacks differ by muscle fiber and what does it mean for certain health outcomes? This is something I’ve touched on in the past, albeit briefly, and decided to go in depth on it today. The characteristics of skeletal muscle fibers dictate whether one has a higher or lower chance of being affected by cardiometabolic disease/cancer. Those with more type I fibers have less of a chance of acquiring diabetes while those with type II fibers have a higher chance of acquiring debilitating diseases. This has direct implications for health disparities between the two races.
Muscle fiber typing by race
Racial differences in muscle fiber typing explain differences in strength and mortality. I have, without a shadow of a doubt, proven this. So since blacks have higher rates of type II fibers while whites have higher rates of type I fibers (41 percent type I for white Americans, 33 percent type I for black Americans, Ama et al, 1985) while West Africans have 75 percent fast twitch and East Africans have 25 percent fast twitch (Hobchachka, 1988). Further, East and West Africans differ in typing composition, 75 percent fast for WAs and 25 percent fast for EAs, which has to do with what type of environment they evolved in (Hochhachka, 1998). What Hochhachka (1998) also shows is that high latitude populations (Quechua, Aymara, Sherpa, Tibetan and Kenyan) “show numerous similarities in physiological hypoxia defence mechanisms.” Clearly, slow-twitch fibers co-evolved here.
Clearly, slow-twitch fibers co-evolved with hypoxia. Since hypoxia is the deficiency in the amount of oxygen that reaches the tissues, populations in higher elevations will evolve hypoxia defense mechanisms, and with it, the ability to use the oxygen they do get more efficiently. This plays a critical role in the fiber typing of these populations. Since they can use oxygen more efficiently, they then can become more efficient runners. Of course, these populations have evolved to be great distance runners and their morphology followed suit.
Caesar and Henry (2015) also show that whites have more type I fibers than blacks who have more type II fibers. When coupled with physical inactivity, this causes higher rates of cancer and cardiometabolic disease. Indeed, blacks have higher rates of cancer and mortality than whites (American Cancer Society, 2016), both of which are due, in part, to muscle fiber typing. This could explain a lot of the variation in disease acquisition in America between blacks and whites. Physiologic differences between the races clearly need to be better studied. But we first must acknowledge physical differences between the races.
Disease and muscle fiber typing
Now that we know the distribution of fiber types by race, we need to see what type of evidence there is that differing muscle fiber typing causes differences in disease acquisition.
Those with fast twitch fibers are more likely to acquire type II diabetes and COPD (Hagiwara, 2013); cardiometabolic disease and cancer (Caesar and Henry, 2015); a higher risk of cardiovascular events (Andersen et al, 2015, Hernelahti et al, 2006); high blood pressure, high heart rate, and unfavorable left ventricle geometry leading to higher heart disease rates and obesity (Karjalainen et al, 2006) etc. Knowing what we know about muscle fiber typing and its role in disease, it makes sense that we should take this knowledge and acknowledge physical racial differences. However, once that is done then we would need to acknowledge more uncomfortable truths, such as the black-white IQ gap.
One hypothesis for why fast twitch fibers are correlated with higher disease acquisition is as follows: fast twitch fibers fire faster, so due to mechanical stress from rapid and forceful contraction, this leads the fibers to be more susceptible to damage and thus the individual will have higher rates of disease. Once this simple physiologic fact is acknowledged by the general public, better measures can be taken for disease prevention.
Due to differences in fiber typing, both whites and blacks must do differing types of cardio to stay healthy. Due to whites’ abundance of slow twitch fibers, aerobic training is best (not too intense). However, on the other hand, due to blacks’ abundance of fast twitch fibers, they should do more anaerobic type exercises to attempt to mitigate the diseases that they are more susceptible due to their fiber typing.
Black men with more type II fibers and less type I fibers are more likely to be obese than ‘Caucasian‘ men are to be obese (Tanner et al, 2001). More amazingly, Tanner et al showed that there was a positive correlation (.72) between weight loss and percentage of type I fibers in obese patients. This has important implications for African-American obesity rates, as they are the most obese ethny in America (Ogden et al, 2016) and have higher rates of metabolic syndrome (a lot of the variation in obesity does come down food insecurity, however). Leaner subjects had higher proportions of type I fibers compared to type II. Blacks have a lower amount of type I fibers compared to whites without adiposity even being taken into account. Not surprisingly, when the amount of type I fibers was compared by ethnicity, there was a “significant interaction” with ethnicity and obesity status when type I fibers were compared (Tanner et al, 2001). Since we know that blacks have a lower amount of type I fibers, they are more likely to be obese.
In Tanner et al’s sample, both lean blacks and whites had a similar amount of type I fibers, whereas the lean blacks possessed more type I fibers than the obese black sample. Just like there was a “significant interaction” between ethnicity, obesity, and type I fibers, the same was found for type IIb fibers (which, as I’ve covered, black Americans have more of these fibers). There was, again, no difference between lean black and whites in terms of type I fibers. However, there was a difference in type IIb fibers when obese blacks and lean blacks were compared, with obese blacks having more IIb fibers. Obese whites also had more type IIb fibers than lean whites. Put simply (and I know people here don’t want to hear this), it is easier for people with type I fibers to lose weight than those with type II fibers. This data is some of the best out there showing the relationship between muscle fiber typing and obesity—and it also has great explanatory power for black American obesity rates.
Muscle fiber differences between blacks and whites explain disease acquisition rates, mortality rates (Araujo et al, 2010), and differences in elite sporting competition between the races. I’ve proven that whites are stronger than blacks based on the available scientific data/strength competitions (click here for an in-depth discussion). One of the most surprising things that muscle fibers dictate is weight loss/obesity acquisition. Clearly, we need to acknowledge these differences and have differing physical activity protocols for each racial group based on their muscle fiber typing. However, I can’t help but think about the correlation between strength and mortality now. This obesity/fiber type study puts it into a whole new perspective. Those with type I fibers are more likely to be physically stronger, which is a cardioprotectant, which then protects against all-cause mortality in men (Ruiz et al, 2008; Volaklis, Halle, and Meisenger, 2015). So the fact that black Americans have a lower life expectancy as well as lower physical strength and more tpe II fibers than type I fibers shows why blacks are more obese, why blacks are not represented in strength competitions, and why blacks have higher rates of disease than other populations.The study by Tanner et al (2001) shows that there obese people are more likely to have type II fibers, no matter the race. Since we know that blacks have more type II fibers on average, this explains a part of the variance in the black American obesity rates and further disease acquisition/mortality.
The study by Tanner et al (2001) shows that there obese people are more likely to have type II fibers, no matter the race. Since we know that blacks have more type II fibers on average, this explains a part of the variance in the black American obesity rates and further disease acquisition/mortality.
Differences in muscle fiber typing do not explain all of the variance in disease acquisition/strength differences, however, understanding what the differing fiber typings do, metabolically speaking, along with how they affect disease acquisition will only lead to higher qualities of life for everyone involved.
Araujo, A. B., Chiu, G. R., Kupelian, V., Hall, S. A., Williams, R. E., Clark, R. V., & Mckinlay, J. B. (2010). Lean mass, muscle strength, and physical function in a diverse population of men: a population-based cross-sectional study. BMC Public Health,10(1). doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-508
Andersen K, Lind L, Ingelsson E, Amlov J, Byberg L, Miachelsson K, Sundstrom J. Skeletal muscle morphology and risk of cardiovascular disease in elderly men. Eur J Prev Cardiol 2013.
Ama PFM, Simoneau JA, Boulay MR, Serresse Q Thériault G, Bouchard C. Skeletal muscle characteristics in sedentary Black and Caucasian males. J Appl Physiol 1986: 6l:1758-1761.
American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures for African Americans 2016-2018. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, 2016.
Ceaser, T., & Hunter, G. (2015). Black and White Race Differences in Aerobic Capacity, Muscle Fiber Type, and Their Influence on Metabolic Processes. Sports Medicine,45(5), 615-623. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0318-7
Hagiwara N. Muscle fibre types: their role in health, disease and as therapeutic targets. OA Biology 2013 Nov 01;1(1):2.
Hernelahti, M., Tikkanen, H. O., Karjalainen, J., & Kujala, U. M. (2005). Muscle Fiber-Type Distribution as a Predictor of Blood Pressure: A 19-Year Follow-Up Study. Hypertension,45(5), 1019-1023. doi:10.1161/01.hyp.0000165023.09921.34
Hochachka, P.W. (1998) Mechanism and evolution of hypoxia-tolerance in humans. J. Exp. Biol. 201, 1243–1254
Karjalainen, J., Tikkanen, H., Hernelahti, M., & Kujala, U. M. (2006). Muscle fiber-type distribution predicts weight gain and unfavorable left ventricular geometry: a 19 year follow-up study. BMC Cardiovascular Disorders,6(1). doi:10.1186/1471-2261-6-2
Ogden C. L., Carroll, M. D., Lawman, H. G., Fryar, C. D., Kruszon-Moran, D., Kit, B.K., & Flegal K. M. (2016). Trends in obesity prevalence among children and adolescents in the United States, 1988-1994 through 2013-2014. JAMA, 315(21), 2292-2299.
Ruiz, J. R., Sui, X., Lobelo, F., Morrow, J. R., Jackson, A. W., Sjostrom, M., & Blair, S. N. (2008). Association between muscular strength and mortality in men: prospective cohort study. Bmj,337(Jul01 2). doi:10.1136/bmj.a439
Tanner, C. J., Barakat, H. A., Dohm, G. L., Pories, W. J., Macdonald, K. G., Cunningham, P. R., . . . Houmard, J. A. (2001). Muscle fiber type is associated with obesity and weight loss. American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology And Metabolism,282(6). doi:10.1152/ajpendo.00416.2001
Volaklis, K. A., Halle, M., & Meisinger, C. (2015). Muscular strength as a strong predictor of mortality: A narrative review. European Journal of Internal Medicine,26(5), 303-310. doi:10.1016/j.ejim.2015.04.013