Can Exercise Be Replaced with a Supplement?

Story at-a-glance -

  • Scientists at Nestlé claim to have found a compound that activates a master metabolic control switch, thereby inhibiting fat production and increasing your body's capacity to burn sugar
  • The stated target audience for such a product include the elderly and those with disabilities that prevent physical activity
  • Unfortunately, there’s no way a supplement will be able to stimulate your muscles to provide the complex physiology needed for optimal health

By Dr. Mercola

Exercise is an essential element of a healthy lifestyle. It's particularly important for controlling your blood sugar and normalizing your insulin levels, which is critical if you want to normalize your weight and maintain optimal health.

Based on the principle of following ancestral practices, it is important to understand that our genetics and biochemistry are optimized for consistent regular movement, and failure to provide that will result in disability and disease.

When done correctly, exercise can oftentimes act as a substitute for some of the most common drugs used for things like diabetes, heart disease, and depression. Unfortunately, a side effect of our modern quick fix culture is that many still wish for a magic pill or elixir, and Nestlé now claims to be able to bottle the benefits of exercise...1

As reported by the Huffington Post:2

"Yes, scientists at Nestlé, the largest food company in the world, published their work in the journal Chemistry and Biology3 on Nov. 24. Kei Sakamoto's research team in Switzerland demonstrated how a compound (C13) could activate a master metabolic control switch, AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK).

AMPK activation inhibits fat production in the liver and increases the body's capacity to burn sugar.

This is good news for the elderly and those with disabilities that preclude the possibility of physical activity. Of course the much larger potential market of simply sedentary people represents the sweet spot for such a product."

The Allure of 'Exercise in a Bottle'

Nutritional supplements can serve an important function by helping to correct specific nutritional imbalances or deficiencies, but trust me—they will never be able to replace physical exercise.

Nestlé claims the compound C13 increases metabolism by interacting with an enzyme that controls the metabolic process. This enzyme, AMPK, is naturally activated by exercise. AMPK stimulates the burning of fat by producing mitochondria, the power sources of cells.

The skeletal muscles of athletes have been found to contain a much higher number of mitochondria, which is likely linked to AMPK activity. AMPK declines with age, which is why you tend to lose muscle as you get older—unless you keep challenging them.

But what else might compound C13 interact with? The truth is, weight loss supplements and metabolic boosters in particular are notorious for creating potentially dangerous side effects.

The intellectual arrogance of this approach is only exceeded by Nestle's egregious attempts at profits with disregard to health. It reminds me of their efforts to stop women in third world countries from breastfeeding so they could sell them vastly inferior synthetic formula that they made.

Clearly, a great many people struggle with weight issues. But to think that an "exercise potion" will be able to save you from the hassle of having to break a sweat is nothing short of delusional. There is simply no way a supplement will be able to stimulate your muscle to provide the complex physiology they need to provide you with optimal health.

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The Synergistic Effects of Exercise Cannot Be 'Bought'

A product like this might be able to mimic a specific biological effect that exercise produces, such as increasing your metabolic rate, but it will never provide you with all  the health effects exercise provides. As someone that has been passionate about exercise for nearly five decades, I can assure that exercise has countless effects on your body -- not only on your muscle fibers but also on your brain, your immune system, your ability to fight cancer, depression, and much more.

There's simply no way a pill or beverage could ever reproduce the synergistic benefits that exercise has on your body and mind. For example, research published in the journal Cell Metabolism4 shows that when healthy but inactive people exercise intensely, even if the exercise is brief, it produces an immediate change in their DNA.

While the underlying genetic code in the muscle remains unchanged, exercise causes important structural and chemical changes to the DNA molecules within the muscles, and this contraction-induced gene activation appears to be early events leading to the genetic reprogramming of muscle for strength, and to the structural and metabolic benefits of exercise.

Several of the genes affected by an acute bout of exercise are genes involved in fat metabolism. Specifically, the study suggests that when you exercise, your body almost immediately experiences genetic activation that increases the production of fat-busting proteins.

Previous studies have identified and measured a wide variety of biochemical changes that occur during exercise. More than 20 different metabolites5 are affected, including compounds that help you burn calories and fat, and compounds that help stabilize your blood sugar.   These biochemical changes create a positive feedback loop. Will "exercise in a bottle" be able to affect all those metabolites? It's highly unlikely, and Nestle's own scientists warn that their product should be viewed as a supplement to boost exercise benefits—not an actual replacement for exercise.6

You Don't Need to Invest Hours to Reap Benefits from Exercise

One of the key health benefits of exercise is that it helps normalize your glucose and insulin levels by optimizing insulin receptor sensitivity. This is perhaps the most important factor for optimizing your overall health and preventing chronic disease. But that doesn't mean you need to spend multiple hours in the gym each week. Research shows that short bursts of intense exercise is the most effective, so you can really maximize your exercise benefits in as little as 40-60 minutes per week, provided you're doing it correctly.

what is peak fitness?

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HIIT Guidelines

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a core component of my Peak Fitness program. There are many versions of HIIT, but the core premise involves maximum exertion followed by a quick rest period for a set of intervals. My Peak Fitness routine uses a set of eight 30-second sprints, each followed by 90 seconds of recovery, as taught by Phil Campbell who is a pioneer in this field. Also, while I typically recommend using an elliptical machine or recumbent bike, it can be performed with virtually any type of exercise, with or without equipment.

To perform these exercises correctly, you'll want to raise your heart rate to your anaerobic threshold, and to do that, you have to give it your all for those 20 to 30 seconds.  Here's a summary of what a typical interval routine might look like using an elliptical (for a demonstration, please see the video below):

  • Warm up for three minutes
  • Exercise as hard and fast as you can for 30 seconds. You should be gasping for breath and feel like you couldn't possibly go on another few seconds. It is better to use lower resistance and higher repetitions to increase your heart rate
  • Recover for 90 seconds, still moving, but at slower pace and decreased resistance
  • Repeat the high intensity exercise and recovery 7 more times. Depending on your level of fitness, you may only be able to do two or three repetitions to start. As you get fitter, just keep adding repetitions until you're doing eight.

Ideally, you'll want to perform these exercises two or three times a week for a total of four minutes of intense exertion, especially if you are not doing strength training.Doing it more frequently than two or three times a week can be counterproductive, as your body needs to recover between sessions.

If you want to do more, focus on making sure you're really pushing yourself as hard as you can during those two or three weekly sessions, rather than increasing the frequency. I also recommend incorporating strength training for a well-rounded fitness program. You can turn your resistance exercises into high intensity exercises as well, simply by slowing things down.

Super slow strength training may even be superior to HIIT exercises using a recumbent bike or elliptical machine in some regards. For instance, you only need about 12 to 15 minutes of super-slow strength training once a week to achieve the same human growth hormone (HGH) production as you would from 20 minutes. To learn more, see The Pros and Cons of Free Weights versus Resistance Machines, which also discusses the benefits of a super-super slow technique.

Eating Right for Fitness

Did you know that turning the food pyramid upside-down is the key to normalizing your weight and optimizing your fitness? Indeed, this point was well made in Donal O'Neill's film, Cereal Killers. By eliminating sugars and grains, and dramatically boosting his fat intake, O'Neill was able to dramatically improve his health. A slew of professional athletes have also switched from traditionally-recommended carb-loading to a high-fat diet, and are reaping the benefits in their careers. As noted by Steven Moore in his write-up of the film:7

"The film features a host of elite athletes and team doctors and nutritionists who are now either using the high fat diet or are advocating it for their teams. World Ironman Champion Sami Inkinen ditched his high-carb high-sugar diet for a 70 percent high fat diet with incredible results. He also only trains for half the time of his rivals because he's adapted his body to run on fat...

Donal says many athletes have been using the high fat diet for years but don't want to talk about it publicly because they don't want their competitors to know what's behind their success. 'Australian fast bowler Mitchell Johnson changed to the high fat diet and his body shape has changed incredibly – he's now built like a tank. The US skier Bode Miller has gone low-carb and he dropped 18lbs.'"

The 'Healthy Processed Food' Myth

The fact is, you've been thoroughly misled when it comes to conventional dietary advice. It's near impossible to maintain optimal health by stocking your fridge and pantry with processed foods and beverages—no matter what health benefits are claimed by the food manufacturers. Think a breakfast cereal can lower your cholesterol and keep your heart healthy? Or that 6-8 servings of whole grain will help you lose weight? Think again!

Many doctors, nutritionists, and government health officials will tell you to keep your saturated fat below 10 percent, while keeping the bulk of your diet, about 60 percent, as carbs. Even diabetic organizations promote carbohydrates as a major component of a healthy diet—even though grains break down to sugar in your body, and sugar promotes insulin resistance, which is the root cause of type 2 diabetes in the first place!

What they don't tell you (probably because they don't know it), is that these grossly flawed dietary guidelines are largely dictated by the processed food industry—not science.  Nutritional science actually tells us this kind of diet is a recipe for weight gain and chronic health problems. Refined carbohydrates promote chronic inflammation in your body, elevate low-density LDL cholesterol, and ultimately lead to insulin and leptin resistance. Insulin and leptin resistance, in turn, is at the heart of obesity and most chronic disease, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's—all the top killers in the US!

Yet such evidence has been ignored or marginalized for the benefit of big business, which is focused on producing cheap foods with high profit margins. The federal government subsidizes the growing of grains and sugar (most in the form of corn, which is then turned into high fructose corn syrup), so that's where the majority of profits are.

I challenge you to read the labels of the processed foods and beverages in your kitchen right now and find one that doesn't contain some form of corn syrup, soy, vegetable oil, or grain. These ingredients are everywhere, and all those refined carbohydrates and harmful processed fats are fuel for weight gain and a whole spectrum of associated health problems.

Healthy Fat—It Does Your Body Good

If you want to get back into the driver's seat, so to speak, you need to ignore what you've been told is "healthy," and take a fresh look at what actually works. In his film, O'Neill switches over to a diet where 70 percent of his calories come from healthy fat—most of it in the form of macadamia nuts (my personal favorite)—and the remaining 30 percent of his caloric intake is divvied up between protein and fibrous fruits and vegetables. Over the course of 28 days, O'Neill:

  • Loses weight and body fat
  • Increases his lean muscle mass
  • Feels more energetic and improves his athletic performance
  • Increases his resting metabolic rate
  • Improves his blood pressure, cholesterol, and other measurements to the point that he no longer has any risk factors for heart disease, which he's genetically predisposed for

His results also show the benefits of a high-fat, low-carb diet for athletes, as it results in higher, more sustained energy. This is a hallmark of ketogenesis, where your body is burning fat rather than sugar as its primary fuel. When your body burns fat, you don't experience the energy crashes associated with carbs, and this is of significant benefit for athletes. While the high fat diet worked for O'Neil it will likely only work well for you if you are one of the 80 percent of those with insulin resistance (diabetes, high blood pressure, overweight, taking a statin drug).  If you aren't insulin resistant it is fine to increase healthy carbs.

How to Eat for Optimal Health

The answer to run-away weight gain and most chronic disease states hinges on a) avoiding inflammatory spikes in blood sugar, insulin and leptin, and b) reversing insulin and leptin resistance. To do this, you need to:

  • Avoid refined sugar, processed fructose, and grains. This means avoiding processed foods of all kinds
  • Eat whole foods, ideally organic, and replace the grain carbs you cut out with:
    • Moderate amounts of high-quality protein from organic, grass-fed or pastured animals (this is to ensure you're not getting the antibiotics, genetically engineered organisms, and altered nutritional fat profile associated with factory farmed animals). Most Americans eat far too much protein, which can be detrimental. To learn more, please see my previous article: The Very Real Risks of Consuming Too Much Protein.
    • As much high-quality healthy fat as you want (saturated and monounsaturated). Many health experts now believe that if you are insulin or leptin resistant (as 80 percent of the US population is), you likely need anywhere from 50 to 85 percent of your daily calories in the form of healthy fats. Good sources include coconut and coconut oil, avocados, butter, nuts (particularly macadamia), and animal fats. Avoid all trans fats and processed vegetable oils (such as canola and soy oil). Also take a high-quality source of animal-based omega-3 fat, such as krill oil.
    • As many vegetables as you can muster. Juicing your vegetables is a good way to boost your vegetable intake.

Another "add-on" suggestion is to start intermittent fasting, which will radically improve your ability to burn fat as your primary fuel. This too will help restore optimal insulin and leptin signaling. There is simply no question or doubt in mind that intermittent fasting is the single most effective strategy to resolve your insulin resistance and junk food cravings.

Bust the Myth of 'Exercise Benefits in a Bottle' Before It Starts

In summary, there's no getting around the fact that if you seek optimal health, you're going to have to make bigger changes than adding another "souped-up" beverage to your shopping list. In fact, removing processed foods and beverages from your list is one of the first steps toward a healthier life. These changes do not need to be traumatically costly or time consuming however. In fact, you may find that eating a diet based on whole foods can save you money.

This is definitely true in the long run, as health care costs can easily devour any savings you might get from buying cheap processed fare. Eating a high-fat, low-carb diet will help you shift from burning sugar to burning fat as primary fuel, and this has far-ranging health benefits, including weight loss and increased energy and stamina.

As for exercise, high-intensity interval training is by far the most efficient and therefore the least time consuming. Super slow strength training is also an excellent choice, as it gives you both the benefits from weight lifting and the benefits from high intensity exercises.

I also recommend avoiding sitting as much as possible, and making it a point to walk more every day. A fitness tracker can be very helpful for this. I suggest aiming for 7,000 to 10,000 steps per day, and this is in addition to your regular fitness regimen, not in lieu of it. There's an explosion of fitness trackers coming and I would encourage you to consider getting one as they can also help you track your sleep and help you reach your eight hours. It is nearly impossible to change something that you aren't carefully monitoring.