If you were going to achieve the same benefits, would you rather pop a pill or spend an hour working out at the gym? It's not a choice we have right now, but it might be in the not-too-distant future, if work from the University of Southampton in the UK can be developed further. Researchers have reported synthesising an "exercise mimic" molecule that works by tricking cells into thinking they've run out of energy.

The cells compensate by upping their glucose and metabolism levels - changes that are normally seen during exercise and which can contribute to weight loss. We're a long way from getting the compound into a form that's tested and safe for humans, but eventually it could help those suffering from obesity or type 2 diabetes, as well as those who really don't fancy a trip to the local gymnasium.

The molecule is called Compound 14 and it triggers a chain reaction of events in a cell: it stops an enzyme called ATIC from functioning correctly, which in turn disrupts the signals reporting the level of insulin in the body. That then leads to a build up of a molecule called ZMP, a build-up that causes the cells to act like they're running out of energy. As they attempt to generate more, you're essentially getting a molecular-level workout.

The researchers tested the effects of the molecule on two groups of mice given different types of diet: one normal, healthy diet, and one with a high amount of fats. The obese rats were given one dose of Compound 14 and their blood glucose levels went right back down to near-normal. After a week of daily doses, the mice had lost 5 percent of their body fat.

For now the compound only seems to work on mice that are already obese - so don't throw that gym membership away just yet - but the researchers want to take their studies further and look at longer-term treatments. The ultimate aim is offering help to diabetes patients that goes beyond what's available today, Ariana Eunjung Cha says at The Washington Post.

"Current treatments for type 2 diabetes centres on elevating circulating insulin levels or improving the insulin sensitivity of an individual," explains one of the team, Felino Cagampang, in a press release. "The issue is that established drugs do not successfully enable patients with type 2 diabetes to achieve glycaemic control and some can even result in weight gain, a leading factor driving the diabetes epidemic. In contrast, this new molecule seems to reduce glucose levels and at the same time decrease body weight, but only if the subject is obese."