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The Athlete's Paradox: More muscle fat, better insulin action?

Have you ever wondered about the "athlete's paradox"--or the fact that athletes actually have more fat stored in their muscles, but are much less insulin resistant than most people.  In the average guy or gal off the street, extra fat stored in the muscles usually increases insulin resistance and makes their insulin work less well, predisposing them to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.

So, what is the answer behind the athlete's paradox?  Researchers from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research recently stumbled upon what they believe is the reason why fat can clog up muscle cells and make them insulin resistant: it appears that fat molecules entering the muscle aren’t being effectively shuttled into the mitochondria—the powerhouses of the cell—to be converted into useable energy.

The “gatekeeper” is a protein called CPT1, which controls the entry of fat into the mitochondria. When they engineered more of this protein in rat hind limbs, their muscles burned significantly more fat and their insulin action improved. The problem this research didn’t solve, however, is that if your muscle is using more fat, it will likely be using less blood glucose, which means that less blood sugar would get used up during a workout.

Interestingly, stimulating fat use in muscles—which they’re hoping to be able to do in the future as a treatment for type 2 diabetes—is exactly what exercise training does for you anyway. In effect, then, they’re trying to come up with an “exercise” pill that will cause this change in your muscles without physical activity. Although several are in the pipeline for the future, they'll never fully replicate what a good workout itself can do for your body and your cardiovascular system. In my opinion, you’re better off getting the full body benefits of doing the exercise on your own!

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Research Analyst 6 years ago

this is an interesting topic when it comes to muscles and the potential of getting diabetes.

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