Compound in dark chocolate mimics effects of exercise

The study investigated the effects of epicatechin – a compound found in dark chocolate – on mice. It found that epicatechin appears to stimulate the same muscle response as exercise in terms of being able to exercise for longer.

The improvements in muscle performance were found to be associated with increases in mitochondria – the ‘powerhouses’ of cells.

Dr Moh Malek at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, who led the study, said: “Mitochondria produce energy which is used by the cells in the body. More mitochondria mean more energy is produced the more work can be performed.
“Aerobic exercise, such as running or cycling, is known to increase the number of mitochondria in muscle cells. Our study has found that epicatechin seems to bring about the same response – particularly in the heart and skeletal muscles.”

A specific form of epicatechin, which is found in cocoa, was given to the mice twice a day for 15 days. At the same time, the mice underwent 30 minutes of treadmill training each day. The researchers found that the group of mice that were only fed epicatechin had the same exercise performance as those that ran on the treadmill daily.

In addition to gaining a better understanding of how epicatchin improves muscle performance, the team hopes that their findings could have therapeutic applications to counteract age-related muscle wasting.

“The number of mitochondria decreases in skeletal muscle as we age, and this affects us physically in terms of both muscle energy production and endurance. Applying what we know about epicatechin’s ability to boost mitochondria numbers may provide an approach to reduce the effects of muscle ageing.”

Using 12 month old mice – the equivalent of middle-aged mice – the researchers gave one group epicatechin, one group epicatechin and treadmill training while the other group just ran on the treadmill.

“Again we found that the group receiving epicatechin treatment only, had significantly better muscle performance and took longer to tire than the group that only exercised. The group that were given epicatchin and exercised showed an even greater improvement – so it appears epicatechin treatment combined with exercise could be a viable means to offset muscle ageing.” Dr Malek commented.

Commenting on whether the findings of the study could be extrapolated to humans, Dr Malek added, “It is fascinating to identify how natural products can mimic and enhance the effects of exercise – however our study was conducted in mice, at the moment it would be a leap of faith to say the same effects would be seen in humans. But it is something we hope to identify in future studies.”


1. Full paper title: (-)Epicatechin Enhances Fatigue Resistance and Oxidative Capacity in Mouse Muscle. Leonardo Nogueira, Israel Ramirez-Sanchez, Guy A. Perkins, Anne Murphy, Pam R. Taub, Guillermo Ceballos, Francisco J. Villarreal, Michael C. Hogan, and Moh H. Malek. J Physiol 589 (18), 4615 – 4631. 15 September 2011.

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