What if you could reap the benefits of exercise without exercising?

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September 19, 2022 – We all know that exercise is good for us. It helps you control your weight and lowers your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and even some cancers. Yet nearly half of American adults fall short of the recommended 150 minutes of moderate activity per week.

Some may blame a lack of time, energy, or motivation. Others may have physical limitations due to age or chronic illness.

But what if you could reap the benefits of exercise without breaking a sweat — by simply popping a pill or injecting medication into your body?

This may sound too good to be true, but scientists are actually working towards this goal. Step one is figuring out how exercise provides health benefits at the molecular level. Two recent studies have advanced this field.

In Australia, a team of researchers has focused on changes in muscles.

“A lot of those benefits [of exercise] arise from contraction of skeletal muscle,” says study author Benjamin Parker, PhD, a researcher in the Department of Physiology and Anatomy at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

The researchers collected muscle biopsies from people in the study, both before and after they performed different types of exercise: endurance, sprinting, and resistance training. They discovered that the same gene – called the C18ORF25 gene – was activated after all species.

When this gene was removed from mice, the result was reduced exercise capacity and muscle defects, Parker says. When activated, muscle function increased.

“Our study identifies C18ORF25 as a new training gene to promote muscle benefits,” says Parker.

The results reported in the journalcellular metabolism, “Can give us valuable insight into how to treat muscle disorders like muscular dystrophy and myasthenia gravis, combat age-related muscle wasting, and improve athletic performance,” says Parker.

This follows other research from Baylor College of Medicine and the Stanford School of Medicine examining which molecules in the body are produced by exercise.

After analyzing blood samples from mice before and after the rodents ran on a treadmill, the researchers found that one compound — called Lac-Phe (N-lactoyl-phenylalanine) — gained more weight than any other. With increasing training intensity, the Lac-Phe level also increased. Similar results were observed in blood samples from 36 people – Lac-Phe levels peaked after vigorous exercise and declined within an hour.

“We were looking for a basic biochemical understanding of the physiology of exercise and stumbled upon the discovery of Lac-Phe,” says study author Jonathan Long, MD, a biochemist at Stanford.

Lac-Phe — a byproduct of lactate (which is produced in large amounts during exercise) and phenylalanine (a building block for protein) — may help regulate the urge to eat, the researchers found. After being injected with the molecule, rodents that had become obese on a special diet ate 50% less food and lost weight. (Interestingly, Lac-Phe didn’t have the same result when administered in tablet form, possibly because the digestive acids in the stomach break it down and render it ineffective.) This may explain why we don’t feel hungry after vigorous exercise.

“We are actively investigating the appetite-suppressing effects of Lac-Phe and the underlying mechanisms,” says study author Yong Xu, MD, professor of pediatrics, nutrition, and molecular and cell biology at Baylor. If all goes well, it could one day be used in humans for weight loss, he says.

These aren’t the only studies looking for a “practice pill.” Over the past decade, researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have reported on a hormone that triggers some of the health benefits of exercise and was recently shown to lower levels of a protein linked to Parkinson’s disease.

Scientists at the University of Southampton in England discovered a compound that improved blood sugar levels and reduced weight in sedentary, obese mice. In other research on mice, scientists at the Salk Institute discovered how to activate a gene pathway triggered by walking with a chemical compound. Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health is funding a major study to examine the molecular effects of exercise.

However, despite the interest, it will likely be years before these findings can be translated into clinical therapies. In the meantime, if you want to reap the benefits of exercise, you’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way.


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What if you could reap the benefits of exercise without exercising?
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