You could soon get the benefits of exercise from a pill—here's everything we know so far

·3-min read
Photo credit: RossHelen
Photo credit: RossHelen

You wouldn’t be human if there wasn’t the odd occasion where exercise can feel like a burden. So, what if we were to tell you that you could one day get the benefits of exercise in the form of a pill? Researchers at Baylor’s College of Medicine and Stanford’s School of Medicine just made the first big move to that becoming a reality.

After conducting several analyses of blood plasma compounds in mice, scientists identified that one particular molecule in the blood, known as Lac-Phe, was the most significantly induced molecule in the mice following intense treadmill running. Lac-Phe is synthesised from lactate - a byproduct of strenuous exercise responsible for the burning sensation you might feel in your muscles when working out – as well as the amino acid phenylalanine, a building block of protein. But what’s it good for?

The study, published in the journal Nature, found that in mice with diet-induced obesity, a high dose of Lac-Phe suppressed appetite (and thus, food intake) by 50 per cent, reduced body fat, and improved the glucose tolerance of these mice over the ten-day study period.

‘Robust elevations’ of plasma Lac-Phe levels were also found in humans after physical activity – sprinting induced the most dramatic increase, followed by resistance training and then endurance training.

‘This suggests that Lac-Phe is an ancient and conserved system that regulates feeding and is associated with physical activity in many animal species,’ study co-author Dr Jonathan Long said in a statement.

Dr Yong Xu, study co-author and professor of paediatrics- nutrition and molecular and cellular biology at Baylor, added: ‘Regular exercise has been proven to help weight loss, regulate appetite and improve the metabolic profile, especially for people who are overweight and obese.

‘If we can understand the mechanism by which exercise triggers these benefits, then we are closer to helping many people improve their health.’

Though Lac-Phe couldn’t capture all of the benefits of exercise, this is a major advance in the world of science, but there’s certainly more research to be done.

For one, the study in question showed that Lac-Phe didn’t the aforementioned benefits to lean, healthy mice, even when administered at higher doses.

Lac-Phe also had no effect when given orally (mice were injected).

And, naturally, Lac-Phe depends on various other processes in the body to do its thing. The researchers found that it relies on an enzyme called CNDP2, and the mice lacking in this enzyme didn’t experience as big a benefit as those in the control group, on the same exercise plan. In fact, they were more likely to eat more and gain weight after exercise.

So, where do we go from here? Dr Long says scientists hope to uncover more about how Lac-Phe mediates its effects in the body, as well as the brain.

‘For example, older or frail people who cannot exercise enough, may one day benefit from taking a medication that can help slow down osteoporosis, heart disease or other conditions,’ he explained.

‘Our goal is to learn to modulate this exercise pathway for therapeutic interventions,’ Dr Yong Xu, study co-author and professor of paediatrics and nutrition and molecular and cellular biology at Baylor, said.

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