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What good stuff happens to your body, exactly, when you jump on that treadmill or bend into that downward dog for yoga?

For decades, scientists have been emphasizing the importance of exercise for good health but how it works beyond the obvious benefits for weight loss and strengthening our hearts has been somewhat fuzzy.

Now new research reveals for the first time how short, vigorous exercise results in a cascading series of more than 1,000 molecular changes that influence everything from energy metabolism to insulin sensitivity. Scientists said this data provides a "blueprint" for developing a pill that can mimic your workout.

In two papers published Oct. 2, in Cell Metabolism and Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, researchers argued that the day you get your workout by taking a drug instead of going to the gym may not be as far away as you may think.

[Scientists have synthesized a new compound that ‘mimics’ exercise. Could a workout pill be far behind?]

Ismail Laher, a professor in the pharmacology and therapeutics department at the University of British Columbia who is a co-author of the second paper, compared an exercise pill to a vitamin supplement.

The benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables far outweigh vitamin pills. But there is a subset of people for which this is the only option. The same could be said of exercise and amputees, stroke victims or others who can't run or otherwise move in an intensive way for various reasons.

"I want to be clear that really there is no way to replace routine exercise with an exercise pill," Laher explained in an interview with The Washington Post. "Exercise requires your heart rate to go up, blood to flow faster, and you cannot do that with an exercise pill… but in particular groups, it's the next best thing."


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The Cell Metabolism study involved analyzing human skeletal muscle biopsies from four healthy men after they went through a high-intensity workout for 10 minutes. Using mass spectrometry, the researchers found that the exercise triggered more than 1,000 changes — the majority of which had not been previously associated with exercise.

The University of Sydney researchers, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, analysed human skeletal muscle biopsies from four untrained, healthy males following 10 minutes of high intensity exercise. Using a technique known as mass spectrometry to study a process called protein phosphorylation, co-author Benjamin Parker discovered that short, intensive exercise triggers more than 1,000 changes.

“This is a major breakthrough, as it allows scientists to use this information to design a drug that mimics the true beneficial changes caused by exercise,” Nolan Hoffman, a researcher at the University of Sydney, said in a statement.

Most traditional drugs target individual molecules associated with disease. The researchers said it's clear from their work that an exercise pill will have to find a way to impact many at the same time.

“We believe this is the key to unlocking the riddle of drug treatments to mimic exercise,” said David James, a professor at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University Sydney and who heads the research group that undertook the study.

The second paper provides a review of various compounds that are being studied for use in exercise pills. The list includes a synthetic molecule developed by the Scripps Research Institute in 2012 as well as naturally found substances, such as a flavonoid, which is found in cocoa, tea and grapes, and resveratrol, which is found in red wine and blueberries.

In July, researchers from Britain's University of Southampton said they had synthesized a substance -- which they nicknamed compound 14 -- that inhibits the function of an enzyme that sets off a reaction to trick cells into thinking they have run out of energy and increase their glucose uptake and metabolism.

Laher said no trials have been done in humans yet, but these substances have proved promising in cell culture and in animals.

"The journey ahead is long," he said, "but probably fruitful."

This post has been updated.

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Scientists have synthesized a new compound that ‘mimics’ exercise. Could a workout pill be far behind?

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