Skip to Content
MIT News: 77 Mass Ave

Workouts in a pill?

Charting cellular effects of exercise confirms its link to health benefits—and could lead to anti-obesity drugs.

December 19, 2022
shape of person running made of colorful pills
Getty Images

new study by researchers at MIT and Harvard Medical School maps out many of the cells, genes, and cellular pathways that are modified by exercise or a high-fat diet, shedding light on exactly how exercise can help prevent obesity. 

The scientists studied mice fed either high-fat or normal diets; in each case, some mice were sedentary and others allowed to exercise. Using single-­cell RNA sequencing, they catalogued the changes in gene expression across 53 types of cells found in skeletal muscle and two types of fatty tissue.

In all three tissue types, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), which can differentiate into fat cells and fibroblasts, seemed to control many of the effects they observed. A high-fat diet enhanced MSCs’ capacity to turn into fat-storing cells, stimulated them to secrete factors that provide structure for enlarged fat cells, and created a more inflammatory environment. Exercise reversed these effects.

The study also showed that exercise boosts the expression of MSC genes that regulate circadian rhythms, while a high-fat diet suppresses them. These included genes linked to differing obesity risks in humans.

“It is extremely important to understand the molecular mechanisms that drive the beneficial effects of exercise and the detrimental effects of a high-fat diet, so that we can understand how we can intervene,” says Professor Manolis Kellis ’99, MEng ’99, PhD ’03, one of the study’s senior authors.He hopes the findings will help guide development of drugs that might mimic some benefits of exercise but says, “The message for everyone should be: Eat a healthy diet and exercise if possible.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Every year, we look for promising technologies poised to have a real impact on the world. Here are the advances that we think matter most right now.

Scientists are finding signals of long covid in blood. They could lead to new treatments.

Faults in a certain part of the immune system might be at the root of some long covid cases, new research suggests.

AI for everything: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Generative AI tools like ChatGPT reached mass adoption in record time, and reset the course of an entire industry.

OpenAI teases an amazing new generative video model called Sora

The firm is sharing Sora with a small group of safety testers but the rest of us will have to wait to learn more.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.