Ever fantasize of being able to see the benefits of exercise without having to, you know, work out?

If so, research from Britain's University of Southampton published this week gives a glimpse of what may be possible in the future.

Ali Tavassoli, a professor of chemical biology, and Felino Cagampang, an associate professor in integrative physiology, reported that they had synthesized a molecule that acts as an "exercise mimic" by tricking cells into thinking they have run out of energy.

Dubbed "compound 14," the new molecule does this by triggering a chain reaction of events in the cell. Compound 14 inhibits the function of an enzyme called ATIC which plays a central role in insulin signaling in the body. That in turn leads to the build up of something called ZMP — known as a "master regulator" of metabolism — in the cells. It's ZMP that makes cells think they have run out of energy and activate the cell's central energy censor which is known as AMPK. The cells compensate by increasing their glucose update and metabolism — changes that typically occur during exercise and that lead to weight loss.

[How Americans can lose a lot of weight without giving up a single calorie]

If this effect could be verified and the compound found to be safe in humans, it could lead to a treatment, even something as simple as a pill, for obesity or type 2 diabetes.

In the study published in the journal Chemistry and Biology on Monday, scientists gave compound 14 to two different groups of mice. One group was fed a normal diet and the other a high-fat diet which made them obese and impaired their glucose tolerance, an early sign of pre-diabetes.

The results were intriguing: In the normal diet group, blood glucose and weight remained normal. But in the high-fat diet group, a single dose of compound 14 lowered blood glucose to near normal levels. A daily dose for seven days caused them to lose 5 percent of their body weight.

"[T]his new molecule seems to reduce glucose levels and at the same time decrease body weight, but only if the subject is obese," Cagampang explained in a statement.

Tavassoli said that there is a lot of evidence from previous studies to support the theory of selectively activating AMPK to increase the uptake and usage of glucose and oxygen by cells. "Our molecule, which activates AMK by altering cellular metabolism, therefore holds much promise as a potential therapeutic agent," he said.

The researchers said their next step would be to examine the effect of long-term treatment and how it works to improve glucose tolerance and reducing body weight.

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Ariana Eunjung Cha is a national reporter. She has previously served as the Post's bureau chief in Shanghai and San Francisco, and as a correspondent in Baghdad.