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Couch-potato workout pill? Not so fast

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It sounded so good just three days ago. ‘You’re getting the benefits of exercise without having to do any work,’ said David Mangelsdorf, a pharmacologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who was not connected with the research. That’s what he told the Los Angeles Times in an Aug. 1 story about a chemical compound, known as AICAR, which allowed sedentary mice to run farther on a treadmill than their placebo-taking couch-mice peers. And when the mice were dissected, the ones who took AICAR had 29% more high-efficiency muscle fibers than those on a placebo.

As you can well imagine, rodents worldwide were popping out the good, high-fat cheese to celebrate. So were humans, even without proof the drug will ever have any benefit for their species.

So now here comes a killjoy, Frank Booth, a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher who has studied inactivity in humans for 40 years. It seems that changing the physical composition of muscle -- transforming the tissue from sugar-burning fast-twitch fibers to fat-burning slow-twitch ones -- as the chemical compound did for the mice, doesn’t even get close to providing all the benefits of exercise.

Booth, in a news release from the university, lists 26 benefits of exercise not touched by the compound AICAR:

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Decreased resting heart rate Increased heart stroke volume at all exercise workloads Increased maximum exercise cardiac output Lower blood pressure and arterial stiffness Increased aerobic capacity Increased strength and cross-sectional area of skeletal muscle Delayed loss of muscle mass and strength with aging and physical frailty Improved balance and coordination Improved flexibility Reduced osteoporosis Reduced joint stress and back pain Decreased gallstone disease Improved functioning of the cells lining blood vessels Decreased incidence of heart attack Less damage if you do have a heart attack Improved balance of oxygen in the blood Decreased inflammation Improved immune function Decreased fatty liver disease Reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes Improved psychological well-being Better cholesterol numbers Improved cognitive function in the elderly Improved blood flow in the brain Prevention of loss of brain volume in the elderly Delay in decline of multiple organ systems with aging Looks like it’s back to the old treadmill. -- Susan Brink


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