Do you ever feel like you’re doing everything right—eating clean, working out, clocking z’s—but you still can’t budge the scale? Evolution is your biggest weight loss enemy, but you may now be able to outsmart it.
In a new study published in the journal Molecular Therapy, a team of researchers from the University of Iowa and the Iowa City VA Medical Center developed a type of chemical therapy that overrides our bodies’ natural resistance to weight loss and enables our muscles to burn more energy, even during low to moderate exercise. These findings could potentially provide people with alternative ways to achieve greater and more consistent weight loss without the discouraging plateaus that most currently encounter. (For more, see 7 Weight-Loss Tips to Change Your Body.)
In order to fully understand, we should go back millions of years ago to prehistoric times. Picture this: you have to hunt and gather all over the land for a bite of food just to survive. It’s physically demanding work, and you could go days without any success. Our bodies found ways to use energy sparingly. As humans, we’ve evolved to be incredibly efficient creatures.
However, in modern times (unless you’re in a very underdeveloped country), food is not only everywhere, it’s also relatively cheap. And our bodies haven’t yet adapted to the fact that we move less and eat more. When we try to drop pounds, our bodies revert back to what they know best: conserving energy and holding onto weight so we don’t die. It’s a survival mechanism that developed to prevent death by starvation.
Naturally, this resistance to weight loss is frustrating to people who eat less but don’t see any weight loss. This can be partly overcome by increasing exercise activity to burn more calories, but it’s very difficult to exercise enough to lose a significant amount of weight—and, of course, some people can’t easily increase their activity because of other health limitations. (But, science has proved that Moving Is Key to Longer Life.)
Researchers Siva Koganti, Zhiyong Zhu, and Denice Hodgson-Zingman set out to see if they could turn the tables on evolution. In the study, they injected the leg muscles of mice to essentially override the muscles’ ability to conserve energy. In response, the injected mice burned more calories when they were active, even at fairly low levels of activity, than mice that did not receive the same treatment. This level of activity would be comparable to what people do on an daily basis including getting dressed, light housework, shopping—normal everyday stuff. (And check out these 9 Weight Loss Tricks You’re Already Doing.)
“Our findings suggest that this method could be used to assist weight loss,” says study co-author Denice Hodgson-Zingman, MD, UI associate professor of internal medicine. “Given that we are facing an epidemic of obesity associated with a number of related health problems, new strategies like the one we propose could have a substantial impact on peoples’ health and well-being.”
And though Hodgson-Zingman notes that the proposed strategy shouldn’t replace exercise, it could help jump-start the weight loss process for many.
Researchers still need to address several important issues such as how long the effect lasts, how many and which muscles are best injected, and if there are any long-term downsides to treatment. But, if the technique is further validated and refined, it could become available to people trying to lose weight. “We envision that people will be able to get intermittent injections of their leg muscles which, in combination with diet and regular activity appropriate to their abilities, would help them to achieve their weight loss goals,” says Hodgson-Zingman.
In the meantime, there are simple things you can do to outsmart evolution. For one, switch up your workout routine. “This study relates directly to variety,” says physiologist Michele S. Olson, PhD, professor of exercise science at Auburn University Montgomery, “Change the moves you’re doing, pick up a new sport, learn new skills, or do something dynamic. You have to keep your muscles guessing in order to burn more calories, especially if you’re stuck on the last 5 pounds,” she says. (Try these 6 Ways to Get Active at Any Age.)
But don’t just keep your muscles guessing; challenge your mind, too. “Learning something new is also good for our brains,” says Olson. “You form new neural pathways whenever you learn something new and our brain uses 80 percent of our daily glucose supply, so you’ll burn more energy that way.” It doesn’t get any easier than that!
By Molly Ritterbeck