Many people with high cholesterol are prescribed statins and advised to exercise more to boost their cardiovascular health. But muscle myopathy — a common side effect of the drug that causes fatigue, aches, and cramping — makes physical activity more difficult and also less beneficial, according to a new study.
As many as 20 percent of statin users experience muscle myopathy, as multiple past studies have shown. The pain often demotivates people to exercise.
To examine how statins affect users’ willingness and ability to exercise, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign gave the drug to mice with high cholesterol levels; they fed a saline solution to a control group of similar mice. A portion of each group was allowed access to running wheels to exercise as they wanted.
After a month, the mice on statins had lower cholesterol, but they had lost interest in running. In addition, their grip strength slipped and their leg muscles fatigued much earlier than the control group.
Researchers also found that their nerves were less capable of eliciting a muscle contraction. The muscular problems were similar among all the mice that were given statins, whether they exercised or not.
But the effects went deeper, to the cellular level. For the mice on statins, exercise didn’t seem to benefit their mitochondria — the energy factories within cells — in the same way as the mice that were not taking the drug.
Additionally, “there appeared to be some evidence at the cellular level that some damage was beginning to occur in the mice, suggesting that exercise in combination with statins may actually be detrimental,” says lead author Marni Boppart, ScD, associate professor at the university’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.
Mice are not humans, of course, but the results echo previous studies suggesting that people on statins are less willing and able to exercise. Boppart says more research is needed to see if the effect is the same with people — and to determine whether the combination of statins and exercise causes cellular damage.
Statins are one of the most widely prescribed medications; about 32 million American adults regularly take them.
That number is likely to rise: In a November 2016 JAMA statement, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all adults age 40 to 75 with even a single cardiovascular-disease risk factor coupled with a specific calculated cardiovascular risk get a prescription.
This originally appeared as “Statins Hamper Exercise” in the June 2017 print issue of Experience Life.