Science is closing in on exercise in pill form. That might not be such a good thing…


Keep active and get moving are messages we hear a lot of when it comes to wellbeing advice. And with good reason. Exercise is miraculous.

It is proven medically and scientifically that keeping active has a multitude of benefits. People who take part in regular physical activity have a reduced risk of stroke and heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, dementia, hip fractures and dying early.

And now, researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine, publishing their findings in the journal Nature, have found a molecule produced by the body during exercise that can reduce appetite and obesity.

The research team analysed blood samples from mice who had run on a treadmill and found a modified amino acid called Lac-Phe was produced from lactate and phenylalanine. When obese mice on a high-fat diet were then given Lac-Phe, it reduced food intake by approximately 50 per cent over 12 hours, which was totally unrelated to movement or energy expenditure.

Next, Lac-Phe was given to mice over 10 days and the researchers found it reduced food intake, body fat and weight, and improved glucose tolerance. High levels of Lac-Phe is also found in racehorses and humans after exercise, perhaps strengthening the idea that this biochemical response is a regulatory system that has always been present in many species.

If we can harness this molecule and put it in pill form, could we at some point get all the benefits of exercise from simply taking a tablet? This is an exciting idea, as it may offer a way to improve the health of people who struggle to exercise due to various conditions or illnesses.

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As this study demonstrates, in our world there is a lot of focus on the physical health benefits of exercise, but not so much attention on the mental and emotional benefits an active lifestyle can offer. Exercise has an impact on our self-esteem and confidence, our cognition, our sense of purpose, our ability for connection, and our sense of achievement in reaching bespoke and personalised goals.

Exercise is proven to reduce depression and anxiety, and can help us manage negative feelings as well as alleviate symptoms of social withdrawal. It is a tool that we can use to support our mental health and wellbeing.

Cognitive function is also improved through exercise. Research using mice models has
found that cardiovascular exercise triggers the creation of new brain cells. Exercise can improve memory and cognitive decline, as well as sparking creativity.

And these benefits start early. There is some evidence that when children get active it can improve their cognition and boost their ability to concentrate. It can help them to perform better academically in some subjects, along with supporting their ability to regulate their emotions.

We have all experienced that sense of personal achievement in gaining a new skill in sports, or reaching a goal we have set ourselves. This is no surprise, as studies have also shown that increased physical activity influences self-esteem directly, and therefore could be considered as a recommendation for people who report low self-confidence. Exercise doesn’t have to mean pounding out the miles on a treadmill, either; we can choose the activity we like best, whether that’s dancing, swimming, trampolining or walking.

Exercise can help connect us to ourselves and others, which makes it a particularly useful activity in a society such as ours where loneliness is prevalent. Some studies have indicated that exercising in a group lowers stress levels compared to individual exercise, and can significantly improve reported quality of life. Other studies have shown group exercise contributed to expanding communities through mutual support and social connectedness.

It is perhaps not surprising that many studies report a positive impact on wellbeing and loneliness, when people take part in group activities.

So, although this research into Lac-Phe is exciting, if we do ever manage to achieve all of the physical benefits of exercise in a tablet, it’s important to make sure that we don’t forget the other benefits that an active lifestyle can offer. Our overall health and wellbeing is made up of physical, mental and emotional elements. These are not mutually exclusive, but rather must exist in a perfect, parallel harmony.

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