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Physiol Behav. 2012 Feb 28;105(4):1028-34. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2011.11.023. Epub 2011 Dec 3.

The effects of exercise on the neuronal response to food cues.

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Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism, and Diabetes, Department of Medicine, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Anschutz Medical Campus, Aurora, CO 80045, USA.


Increased physical activity is associated with successful long-term weight loss maintenance due to mechanisms likely more complex than simply increased energy expenditure. The impact of physical activity on the central regulation of food intake may be an important mechanism of this effect. The objective of this study was to examine the effects of exercise training and acute exercise on the neuronal response to food cues as well as eating behaviors. fMRI was performed in the fasted state at baseline and again after a 6 month progressive exercise intervention (supervised, 5 days/wk) both with and without an acute exercise bout in 12 overweight/obese (5 women, 7 men; BMI 33 ± 4 kg/m(2)) healthy adults. fMRI data were acquired while subjects were presented with visual stimuli of foods of high hedonic value as compared to neutral control objects. Questionnaires on eating behaviors, ratings of appeal and desire for foods, and ratings of appetite (hunger, satiety, prospective intake) using visual analog scales were also performed at baseline and again after the 6-month exercise intervention. While only a trend was observed for a reduction in body weight (102 ± 5 to 99 ± 6 kg, p=0.09), a significant reduction in fat mass was observed (36.4 ± 2.8 to 33.7 ± 3.2 kg, p=0.04), although as expected changes in fat mass were variable (-10.0 to +3.7 kg). Chronic exercise was associated with a reduction in the neuronal response to food, primarily in the posterior attention network and insula. A significant positive correlation between the change in fat/body mass and the change in insula response to food cues with chronic exercise was observed. An acute exercise bout attenuated the effects of chronic exercise. The exercise intervention, however, did not impact any of the measures of appetitive behavior. In summary, despite no effects on behavioral measures of appetite, chronic exercise training was associated with attenuation in the response to visual food cues in brain regions known to be important in food intake regulation. The insula, in particular, appears to play an important role in the potential exercise-induced weight loss and weight loss maintenance.

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