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Exercise in a Pill? Maybe

Exercise in a pill?

If you find lots of excuses to not exercise, you are not alone. But what if scientists could invent exercise in a pill or, more specifically, a pill that made you want to exercise?

Could a pill make you want to exercise?

It sounds too good to be true, but what if you could take something that would increase your desire to exercise and lose weight? Researchers in Switzerland have discovered that high levels of erythropoietin (Epo), a hormone found in the brain, can cause mice to exercise more.

Erythropoietin is produced by the kidneys and stimulates the production of red blood cells. Kidney cells naturally produce and release more Epo when blood oxygen levels are low.

You may be familiar with erythropoietin for another reason: doping. Epo is injected by some athletes to artificially boost their red blood cell levels, a use that has been banned but is still practiced.

Use of Epo for doping can be dangerous, because the hormone injections thicken the blood and increase the risk of heart attack, blood clots, and strokes. The Epo used in the new study, however, did not raise red blood cell counts in the tested mice.

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In the study, three groups of mice were tested: one group did not receive Epo (controls), one group was injected with human Epo, and one group were genetically modified to produce human Epo in the brain. Compared with the control mice, the animals in the other two groups had significantly greater running performance without experiencing an increase in red blood cells.

According to one of the study's researchers, Max Gassmann, DVM, from the Institute of Veterinary Physiology, Vetsuisse-Faculty and Zurich Center for Integrative Human Physiology at the University of Zurich, he and his associates showed that "Epo increases the motivation to exercise."

This discovery could have far-reaching effects, noted Gassmann, who pointed out that "Most probably, Epo has a general effect on a person's mood and might be used in patients suffering from depression and related diseases," including obesity, dementia, and mental health disorders whose symptoms could be improved by physical activity.

Numerous studies have shown that exercise is good medicine for a broad range of medical problems. Women with postnatal depression can get relief from exercise, breast cancer patients who exercise reduce fatigue and improve quality of life, and exercise provides pain relief. Exercise has also been named as therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Given the epidemic of overweight and obesity, finding something that motives people to exercise more could be a breakthrough. According to Gerald Weissmann, MD, editor-in-chief of The FASEB Journal, which published the study, "If you can't put exercise in a pill, then maybe you can put the motivation to exercise in a pill instead."

Schuler B et al. Acute and chronic elevation of erythropoietin in the brain improves exercise performance in mice without inducing erythropoiesis. FASEBJournal, published online June 8, 2012. doi:10.1096/fj.11-191197

Image: Wikimedia Commons