Now, this is an example of an idea being followed through to its logical conclusion. Here’s where we start: the good effects of exercise are well known, and seem to be beyond argument. Among these are marked improvements in insulin resistance (the hallmark of type II diabetes) and glucose uptake. In fact, exercise, combined with losing adipose weight, is absolutely the best therapy for mild cases of adult-onset diabetes, and can truly reverse the condition, an effect no other treatment can match.
So, what actually causes these exercise effects? There has to be a signal (or set of signals) down at the molecular level that tells your cells what’s happening, and initiates changes in their metabolism. One good candidate is the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the mitochondria. Exercise most certainly increases a person’s use of oxygen, and increases the work load on the mitochondria (since that’s where all the biochemical energy is coming from, anyway). Increased mitochondrial formation of ROS has been well documented, and they have a lot of physiological effects.
Of course, ROS are also implicated in many theories of aging and cellular damage, which is why cells have several systems to try to soak these things up. That’s exactly why people take antioxidants, vitamin C and vitamin E especially. So. . .what if you take those while you’re exercising?
A new paper in PNAS askes that exact question. About forty healthy young male volunteers took part in the study, which involved four weeks of identical exercise programs. Half of the volunteers were already in athletic training, and half weren’t. Both groups were then split again, and half of each cohort took 1000 mg/day of vitamin C and 400 IU/day vitamin E, while the other half took no antioxidants at all. So, we have the effects of exercise, plus and minus previous training, and plus and minus antioxidants.
And as it turns out, antioxidant supplements appear to cancel out many of the beneficial effects of exercise. Soaking up those transient bursts of reactive oxygen species keeps them from signaling. Looked at the other way, oxidative stress could be a key to preventing type II diabetes. Glucose uptake and insulin sensitivity aren't affected by exercise if you're taking supplementary amounts of vitamins C and E, and this effect is seen all the way down to molecular markers such as the PPAR coactivator proteins PGC1 alpha and beta. In fact, this paper seems to constitute strong evidence that ROS are the key mediators for the effects of exercise, and that this process is mediated through PGC1 and PPAR-gamma. (Note that PPAR-gamma is the target of the glitazone class of drugs for type II diabetes, although signaling in this area is notoriously complex).
Interestingly, exercise also increases the body's endogenous antioxidant systems - superoxide dismutase and so on. These are some of the gene targets of PPAR-gamma, suggesting that these are downstream effects. Taking antioxidant supplements kept these from going up, too. All these effects were slightly more pronounced in the group that hadn't been exercising before, but were still very strong across the board.
This confirms the suspicions raised by a paper from a group in Valencia last year, which showed that vitamin C supplementation seemed to decrease the development of endurance capacity during an exercise program. I think that there's enough evidence to go ahead and say it: exercise and antioxidants work against each other. The whole take-antioxidants-for-better-health idea, which has been taking some hits in recent years, has just taken another big one.