Lutein … can it make exercise more fun?
A supplement which makes exercise more fun? It sounds too good to be true. But at the Nutritional Physiology Research Centre, at the University of South Australia, that’s exactly what researchers are working on. “We are looking at the combination of lutein and milk to see if it can help people who want to exercise regularly to both increase and maintain their physical activity levels,” says Associate Professor Jon Buckley, the centre’s director. Evidence from animal studies suggests that the combination not only increases levels of activity, it actually makes exercise more enjoyable.
Lutein already has its health claims: an antioxidant found in vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and pumpkin, it’s sold as a supplement to help protect the eyes against macular degeneration. But could it have a positive effect on physical activity levels?
Associate Professor Jon Buckley, director of the Nutritional Physiology Research Centre, believes so. A recent Japanese study, he explains, showed that lab rats given a mixture of lutein and milk voluntarily spend more time on their running wheels than rats fed on ordinary food alone. “There are two possible reasons,” says Buckley. “Lutein may alter their mood so that it makes them more active. Or it may make exercising more pleasurable once they’re doing it.” There is already evidence that lutein affects some human brain functions, but this is first study to examine the chemical’s links with exercise.
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But not everybody is convinced. Susie Burrell, a Sydney-based dietician, agrees that lutein is a valuable nutrient – when consumed as part of a balanced diet. But she doesn’t believe that using it as a supplement is likely to have a positive effect. “There are so many other variables,” she says. “Isolate out one nutrient and I’d be very surprised if it had the power to influence somebody’s energy levels. There are lots of key nutrients involved.”
However, Buckley believes that we need all the help we can get to engage in exercise. Half of us, he points out, aren’t even doing the minimum necessary: a half-hour of light to moderate exercise – such as walking – most days. For now the Nutritional Physiology Research Centre’s work will focus on men and women between 60 and 80, because “they’re the ones who are going to benefit most immediately – and they’re a growing proportion of the population.” But if the findings are positive, the centre plans to begin research on younger groups too.
So it may be some time before you can buy a magic pill which turns a post-work work-out into an enticing proposition. But there may be yet another reason – as if you needed one – to keep eating your greens.