Tagged Rats

To Keep Obesity at Bay, Exercise May Trump Diet

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Young rats prone to obesity are much less likely to fulfill that unhappy destiny if they run during adolescence than if they do not, according to a provocative new animal study of exercise and weight. They also were metabolically healthier, and had different gut microbes, than rats that keep the weight off by cutting back on food, the study found. The experiment was done in rodents, not people, but it does raise interesting questions about just what role exercise may play in keeping obesity at bay.

For some time, many scientists, dieting gurus and I have been pointing out that exercise by itself tends to be ineffective for weight loss. Study after study has found that if overweight people start working out but do not also reduce their caloric intake, they shed little if any poundage and may gain weight.

The problem, most scientists agree, is that exercise increases appetite, especially in people who are overweight, and also can cause compensatory inactivity, meaning that people move less over all on days when they exercise. Consequently, they wind up burning fewer daily calories, while also eating more. You do the math.

But those discouraging studies involved weight loss. There has been much less examination of whether exercise might help to prevent weight gain in the first place and, if it does, how it compares to calorie restriction for that purpose.

So for the new study, which was published last week in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers at the University of Missouri in Columbia and other schools first gathered rats from a strain that has an inborn tendency to become obese, starting in adolescence. (Adolescence is also when many young people begin to add weight.)

These rats were young enough, though, that they were not yet overweight.

After weighing them, the researchers divided the animals into three groups.

One group was allowed to eat as much kibble as they wished and to remain sedentary in their cages. These were the controls.

Another group, the exercise group, also was able to eat at will, but these animals were provided with running wheels in their cages. Rats like to run, and the animals willingly hopped on the wheels, exercising every day.

The final group, the dieting group, was put on a calorie-restricted meal plan. Their daily kibble helpings were about 20 percent smaller than the amount that the runners ate, a portion size designed to keep them at about the same weight as the runners, so that extreme differences in body size would not affect the final results.

After 11 weeks, all of the animals were moved to specialized cages that could measure their metabolisms and how much they moved around. They then returned to their assigned cages for several more weeks, by which time they were effectively middle-aged.

At that point, the control animals were obese, their physiques larded with fat.

The runners and the lower-calorie groups, however, although they also had gained ounces, had put on far less weight than the controls. None were obese.

Both exercise and portion control, in other words, had effectively protected the animals against their fated fatness.

But beneath the skin, the runners and the dieters looked very unalike. By almost all measures, the runners were metabolically healthier, with better insulin sensitivity and lower levels of bad cholesterol than the dieters. They also burned more fat each day for fuel, according to their metabolic readings, and had more cellular markers related to metabolic activity within their brown fat than the dieting group. Brown fat, unlike the white variety, can be quite metabolically active, helping the body to burn additional calories.

Interestingly, the runners also had developed different gut microbes than the dieters, even though they ate the same food. The runners had greater percentages of some bacteria and smaller populations of others than the dieters or the control group; these particular proportions of gut bugs have been associated in a few previous studies with long-term leanness in both animals and people.

Perhaps most striking, “the runners showed no signs of compensatory eating or compensatory inactivity,” said Victoria Vieira-Potter, an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri who oversaw the study. They didn’t scarf down more food than the control group, despite running several miles every day and, according to the specialized cages, actually moved around more when not exercising than either of the other groups of rats.

In essence, the runners, while weighing the same as the dieters at the end of the study, seemed better set up to avoid weight gain in the future.

Of course, these were rats, which do not share our human biology or our tangled psychological relationships with food and body fat.

This study also involved young, normal-weight rodents and cannot tell us whether exercise or dieting alone or in combination would aid or hinder weight loss in people (or animals) who already are overweight, Dr. Vieira-Potter said. Metabolisms change once a body contains large amounts of fat, and it becomes increasingly difficult to permanently drop those extra pounds.

So better to avoid weight gain in the first place, if possible. And in that context, she said, “restricting calories can be effective,” but exercise is likely to be more potent in the long term and, of course, as common sense would tell us, doing both—watching what you eat and exercising—is best of all.

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Which Type of Exercise Is Best for the Brain?

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Some forms of exercise may be much more effective than others at bulking up the brain, according to a remarkable new study in rats. For the first time, scientists compared head-to-head the neurological impacts of different types of exercise: running, weight training and high-intensity interval training. The surprising results suggest that going hard may not be the best option for long-term brain health.

As I have often written, exercise changes the structure and function of the brain. Studies in animals and people have shown that physical activity generally increases brain volume and can reduce the number and size of age-related holes in the brain’s white and gray matter.

Exercise also, and perhaps most resonantly, augments adult neurogenesis, which is the creation of new brain cells in an already mature brain. In studies with animals, exercise, in the form of running wheels or treadmills, has been found to double or even triple the number of new neurons that appear afterward in the animals’ hippocampus, a key area of the brain for learning and memory, compared to the brains of animals that remain sedentary. Scientists believe that exercise has similar impacts on the human hippocampus.

These past studies of exercise and neurogenesis understandably have focused on distance running. Lab rodents know how to run. But whether other forms of exercise likewise prompt increases in neurogenesis has been unknown and is an issue of increasing interest, given the growing popularity of workouts such as weight training and high-intensity intervals.

So for the new study, which was published this month in the Journal of Physiology, researchers at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland and other institutions gathered a large group of adult male rats. The researchers injected the rats with a substance that marks new brain cells and then set groups of them to an array of different workouts, with one group remaining sedentary to serve as controls.

Some of the animals were given running wheels in their cages, allowing them to run at will. Most jogged moderately every day for several miles, although individual mileage varied.

Others began resistance training, which for rats involves climbing a wall with tiny weights attached to their tails.

Still others took up the rodent equivalent of high-intensity interval training. For this regimen, the animals were placed on little treadmills and required to sprint at a very rapid and strenuous pace for three minutes, followed by two minutes of slow skittering, with the entire sequence repeated twice more, for a total of 15 minutes of running.

These routines continued for seven weeks, after which the researchers microscopically examined brain tissue from the hippocampus of each animal.

They found very different levels of neurogenesis, depending on how each animal had exercised.

Those rats that had jogged on wheels showed robust levels of neurogenesis. Their hippocampal tissue teemed with new neurons, far more than in the brains of the sedentary animals. The greater the distance that a runner had covered during the experiment, the more new cells its brain now contained.

There were far fewer new neurons in the brains of the animals that had completed high-intensity interval training. They showed somewhat higher amounts than in the sedentary animals but far less than in the distance runners.

And the weight-training rats, although they were much stronger at the end of the experiment than they had been at the start, showed no discernible augmentation of neurogenesis. Their hippocampal tissue looked just like that of the animals that had not exercised at all.

Obviously, rats are not people. But the implications of these findings are provocative. They suggest, said Miriam Nokia, a research fellow at the University of Jyvaskyla who led the study, that “sustained aerobic exercise might be most beneficial for brain health also in humans.”

Just why distance running was so much more potent at promoting neurogenesis than the other workouts is not clear, although Dr. Nokia and her colleagues speculate that distance running stimulates the release of a particular substance in the brain known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor that is known to regulate neurogenesis. The more miles an animal runs, the more B.D.N.F. it produces.

Weight training, on the other hand, while extremely beneficial for muscular health, has previously been shown to have little effect on the body’s levels of B.D.N.F., Dr. Nokia said, which could explain why it did not contribute to increased neurogenesis in this study.

As for high-intensity interval training, its potential brain benefits may be undercut by its very intensity, Dr. Nokia said. It is, by intent, much more physiologically draining and stressful than moderate running, and “stress tends to decrease adult hippocampal neurogenesis,” she said.

These results do not mean, however, that only running and similar moderate endurance workouts strengthen the brain, Dr. Nokia said. Those activities do seem to prompt the most neurogenesis in the hippocampus. But weight training and high-intensity intervals probably lead to different types of changes elsewhere in the brain. They might, for instance, encourage the creation of additional blood vessels or new connections between brain cells or between different parts of the brain.

So if you currently weight train or exclusively work out with intense intervals, continue. But perhaps also thread in an occasional run or bike ride for the sake of your hippocampal health.

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