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Muscle Fibers, Obesity, Cardiometabolic Disorders, and Race

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The association between muscle fiber typing obesity and race is striking. It is well-established that blacks have a higher proportion of type II skeletal muscle fibers than whites and these higher proportions of these specific types of muscle fibers lead to physiological differences between the two races which then lead to differing health outcomes between them—along with differences in athletic competition. Racial differences in health are no doubt complex, but there are certain differences between the races that we can look at and say that there is a relationship here that warrants further scrutiny.

Why is there an association between negative health outcomes and muscle phsyiology? The answer is very simple if one knows the basics of muscle physiology and how and why muscles contract (it is worth noting that out of a slew of anatomic and phsyiologic factors, movement is the only thing we can consciously control, compare to menstration and other similar physiologic processes which are beyond our control). In this article, I will describe what muscles do, how they are controlled, muscle physiology, the differences in fiber typing between the races and what it means for health outcomes between them.

Muscle anatomy and physiology

Muscle fiber number is determined by the second trimester. Bell (1980) noted that skeletal muscle fiber in 6 year olds is not different from normal adult tissue, and so, we can say that between the time in the womb and age 6, muscle fiber type is set and cannot be changed (though training can change how certain fibers respond, see below).

Muscle anatomy and physiology is interesting because it shows us how and why we move the way we do. Tendons attach muscle to bone. Attached to the tendon is the muscle belly. The muscle belly is made up of facsicles and the fascicles are made up of muscle fibers. Muscle fibers are made up of myofibrils and myofibrils are made up of myofilaments. Finally, myofilaments are made up of proteins—specifically actin and myosin, this is what makes up our muscles.


(Image from here.)

Muscle fibers are encased by sarcolemma which contains cell components such as sarcoplasm, nuclei, and mitochondria. They also have other cells called myofibrils which contain myofilaments which are then made up of actin (thin filaments) and mysoin (thick filaments). These two types of filaments form numerous repeating sections within a myofibril and each repeating section is known as a sarcomere. Sarcomeres are the “functional” unit of the muscle, like the neuron is for the nervous system. Each ‘z-line’ denotes another sarcomere across a myofibril (Franzini-Armstrong, 1973; Luther, 2009).

Other than actin and myosin, there are two more proteins important for muscle contraction: tropomyosin and troponin. Tropomyosin is found on the actin filament and it blocks myosin binding sites which are located on the actin filament, and so it keeps myosin from attaching to muscle while it is in a relaxed state. On the other hand, troponin is also located on the actin filament but troponin’s job is to provide binding sites for calcium and tropomyosin when a muscle needs to contract.

So the structure of skeletal muscle can be broken down like so: epymyseum > muscle belly > perimyseum > fascicle > endomyseum > muscle fibers > myofibrils > myofilaments > myosin and actin. Note diagram (C) from above; the sarcomere is the smallest contractile unit in the myofibril. According to sliding filament theory (see Cook, 2004 for a review), a sarcomere shortens as a result of the ‘z-lines’ moving closer together. The reason these ‘z-lines’ converge is because myosin heads attach to the actin filament which asynchronistically pulls the actin filament across the myosin, which then results in the shortening of the muscle fiber. Sarcomeres are the basic unit controlling changes in muscle length, so the faster or slower they fire depends on the majority type of fiber in that specific area.

But the skeletal muscle will not contract unless the skeletal muscles are stimulated. The nervous system and the muscular system communicate, which is called neural activiation—defined as the contraction of muscle generated by neural stimulation. We have what are called “motor neurons”—neurons located in the CNS (central nervous system) which can send impulses to muscles to move them. This is done through a special synapse called the neuromuscular junction. A motor neuron that connects with muscle fibers is called a motor unit and the point where the muscle fiber and motor unit meet is callled the neuromuscular junction. It is a small gap between the nerve and muscle fiber called a synapse. Action potentials (electrical impulses) are sent down the axon of the motor neuron from the CNS and when the action potential reaches the end of the axon, hormones called neurotransmitters are then released. Neurotransmitters transport the electrical signal from the nerve to the muscle.

Muscle fiber types

The two main categories of muscle fiber are type I and type II—‘slow’ and ‘fast’ twitch, respectively. Type I fibers contain more blood cappilaries, higher levels of mitochondria (which transforms food into ATP) and myoglobin which allows for an improved delivery of oxygen. Since myoglobin is similar to hemoglobin (the red pigment which is found in red blood cells), type I fibers are also known as ‘red fibers.’ Type I fibers are also smaller in diameter and slower to produce maximal tension, but are also the most fatigue-resistant type of fiber.

Type II fibers have two subdivisions—IIa and IIx—based on their mechanical and chemical properties. Type II fibers are in many ways the opposite of type I fibers—they  contain far fewer blood cappilaries, mitochondria and myoglobin. Since they have less myoglobin, they are not red, but white, which is why they are known as ‘white fibers.’ IIx fibers have a lower oxidative capacity and thusly tire out quicker. IIa, on the other hand, have a higher oxidative capacity and fatigue slower than IIx fibers (Herbison, Jaweed, and Ditunno, 1982; Tellis et al, 2012). IIa fibers are also known as intermediate fast twitch fibers since they can use both anarobic and aerobic metabolism equally to produce energy. So IIx fibers are a combo of I and II fibers. Type II fibers are bigger, quicker to produce maximal tension, and tire out quicker.

Now, when it comes to fiber typing between the races, blacks have a higher proportion of type II fibers compared to whites who have a higher proportion of type I fibers (Ama et al, 1986; Ceaser and Hunter, 2015; see Entine, 2000 and Epstein, 2014 for reviews). Higher proportions of type I fibers are associated with lower chance of cardiovascular events, whereas type II fibers are associated with a higher risk. Thus, “Skeletal muscle fibre composition may be a mediator of the protective effects of exercise against cardiovascular disease” (Andersen et al, 2015).

Now that the basics of muscle anatomy and physiology are apparent, hopefully the hows and whys of muscle contraction and what different muscle fibers do are becoming clear, because these different fibers are distributed between the races in uneven frequencies, which then leads to differences in sporting performance but also differents in health outcomes.

Muscle fibers and health outcomes

We now know the physiology and anatomy of muscle and muscle fiber typing. We also know the differences between each type of skeletal muscle fiber. Since the two races do indeed differ in the percentage of skeletal muscle fiber possessed on average, we then should find stark differences in health outcomes, part of the reason being these differences in muscle fiber typing.

While blacks on average have a higher proportion of type II muscle fibers, whites have a higher proportion of type I muscle fibers. Noting what I wrote above about the differences between the fiber types, and knowing what we know about racial differences in disease outcomes, we can draw some inferences on how differences in muscle fiber typing between races/individuals can then affect disease seriousness/acquisition.

In their review of black-white differences in muscle fiber typing, Ceaser and Hunter (2015) write that “The longitudinal data regarding the rise in obesity indicates obesity rates have been highest among non-Hispanic Black women and Hispanic women.” And so, knowing what we know about fiber type differences between races and how these fibers act when they fire, we can see how muscle fiber typing would contribute to differences in disease acquisition between groups.

Tanner et al (2001) studied 53 women (n=28, lean women; and n=25, obese women) who were undergoing an elective abdominal surgery (either a hysterectomy or gastric bypass). Their physiologic/anatomic measures were taken and they were divided into races: blacks and whites, along with their obesity status. Tanner et al found that the lean subjects had a higher proportion of type I fibers and a lower proportion of type IIx fibers whereas those who were obese were more likely to have a higher proportion of type IIb muscle fibers.

Like other analyses on this matter, Tanner et al (2001) showed that the black subjects had a higher proportion of type II fibers in comparison to whites who had a higher proportion of type I fibers (adiposity was not taken into account). Fifty-one percent of the fiber typing from whites was type I whereas for blacks it was 43.7 pervent. Blacks had a higher proportion of type IIx fibers than whites (16.3 percent for whites and 23.4 for blacks). Lean blacks and lean whites, though, had a similar percentage of type IIx fibers (13.8 percent for whites and 15 percent for blacks). It is interesting to note that there was no difference in type I fibers between lean whites and blacks (55.1 percent for whites and 54.1 percent for blacks), though muscle fibers from obese blacks contained far fewer type I fibers compared to their white counterparts (48.6 percent for whites and 34.5 for blacks). Obese blacks’ muscle fiber had a higher proportion of type IIx fibers than obese whites’ fiber typing (19.2 percent for whites and 31 percent for blacks). Lean blacks and lean whites had a higher proportion of type I fibers than obese blacks and obese whites. Obese whites and obese blacks had more type IIx fibers than lean whites and lean blacks.

So, since type II fibers are insulin resistant (Jensen et al, 2007), then they should be related to glucose intloerance—type II diabetes—and blacks with ancestry from West Africa should be most affected. Fung (2016, 2018) shows that obesity is a disease of insulin resistance, and so, we can bring that same rationale to racial differences in obesity. Indeed, Nielsen and Christensen (2011) hypothesize that the higher prevalence of glucose intolerance in blacks is related to their lower percentage of type I fibers and their higher percentage of type II fibers.

Nielsen and Christensen (2011) hypothesize that since blacks have a lower percentage of type I fibers (the oxidative type), this explains the lower fat oxidation along with lower resting metabolic rate, sleeping metabolic rate, resting energy expenditure and Vo2 max in comparison to whites. Since type I fibers are more oxidative over the glycolitic type II fibers, the lower oxidative capacity in these fibers “may cause a higher fat storage at lower levels of energy intake than in individuals with a higher oxidative capacity” (Nielsen and Christensen, 2011: 611). Though the ratio of IIx and IIa fibers are extremely plastic and affected by lifestyle, Nielsen and Christensen do note that individuals with different fiber typings had similar oxidative capacity if they engaged in physical activity. Recall back to Caesar and Hunter (2015) who note that blacks have a lower maximal aerobic capacity and higher proportion of type II fibers. They note that lack of physical activity exacerbates the negative effects that a majority type II fibers has over majority type I. And so, some of these differences can be ameliorated between these two racial groups.

The point is, individuals/groups with a higher percentage of type II fibers who do not engage in physical activity have an even higher risk of lower oxidative capacity. Furthermore, a higher proportion of type II fibers implies a higher percentage of IIx fibers, “which are the least oxidative fibres and are positively associated with T2D and obesity” (Nielsen and Christensen, 2011: 612). They also note that this may explain the rural-urban difference in diabetes prevalance, with urban populations having a higher proportion of type II diabetics. They also note that this may explain the difference in type II diabetes in US blacks and West African natives—but the reverse is true for West Africans in the US. There is a higher rate of modernization and, with that, a higher chance to be less physically active and if the individual in question is less physically active and has a higher proportion of type II fibers then they will have a higher chance of acquiring metabolic diseases (obesity is also a metabolic disease). Since whites have a higher proportion of type I fibers, they can increase their fat intake—and with it, their fat oxidation—but this does not hold for blacks who “may not adjust well to changes in fat intake” (Nielsen and Christensen, 2011: 612).

Nielsen and Christensen end their paper writing:

Thus, Blacks of West African ancestry might be genetically predisposed to T2D because of an inherited lower amount of skeletal muscle fibre type I, whereby the oxidative capacity and fat oxidation is reduced, causing increased muscular tissue fat accumulation. This might induce skeletal muscle insulin resistance followed by an induced stress on the insulin-producing beta cells. Together with higher beta-cell dysfunction in the West African Diaspora compared to Whites, this will eventually lead to T2D (an overview of the ‘skeletal muscle distribution hypothesis’ can be seen in Figure 2).


Lambernd et al (2012) show that muscle contractions eliminated insuin resistance by blocking pro-inflammatory signalling pathways: this is the mechanism by which physical activity decreases glucose intolerance and thusly improves health outcomes—especially for those with a higher proportion of type II fibers. Thus, it is important for individuals with type II fibers to exercise, since sedentariness is associated with an age-related insulin resistance due to impaired GLUT4 utilization (Bunprajun et al, 2013).

(Also see Morrison and Cooper’s (2006) hypothesis that “reduced oxygen-carrying capacity induced a shift to more explosive muscle properties” (Epstein, 2014: 179). Epstein notes that the only science there is on this hypothesis is one mouse and rat study showing that low hemoglobin can “induce a switch to more explosive muscle fibers” (Epstein, 2014: 178), but this has not been tested on humans to see if it would hold. If this is tested on humans and if it does hold, then that would lend credence to Morrison’s and Cooper’s (2006) hypothesis.)


Knowing what we know about muscle anatomy and physiology and how muscles act we can understand the influence the different muscle types have on disease and how they contribute to disease variation between race, sex and the individual level. Especially knowing how type II fibers act when the individual in question is insulin resistant is extremely important—though it has been noted that individuals who participate in aerobic exercise decrease their risk for cardiometabolic diseases and can change the fiber distribution difference between IIx and IIa fibers, lowering their risk for acquiring cardiometabolic diseases (Ceaser and Hunter, 2015).

Thinking back to sarcomeres (the smallest contractile unit in the muscle) and how they would act in type II fibers: they would obviously contract much faster in type II muscles over type I muscles; they would then obviously tear faster than type I muscles; since type II muscles are more likely to be insulin resistant, then those with a higher proportion of type II fibers need to focus more on aerobic activity to “balance out” type IIx and IIa fibers and decrease the risk of cardiometabolic disease due to more muscle contractions (Lambernd et al, 2012). Since blacks have a higher proportion of type II fibers and are more likely to be sedentary than whites, and since those who have a higher proportion of type II fibers are more likely to be obese, then it is clear that exercise can and will ameliorate some of the disparity in cardiometabolic diseases between blacks and whites.