Feeding couch-potato quails a daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids—heart healthy, brain-boosting oils found in fish, nuts and certain plants—can significantly boost their endurance capacity, a new study has found. And the best part is the lazy birds don't even have to exercise.

"We found that these dietary omega-3 fatty acids have a major impact on the oxidative capacity (the ability to use oxygen to create energy) of muscle in birds," says Jean-Michel Weber, a biologist at the University of Ottawa in Ontario and co-author of the research published recently in The Journal of Experimental Biology.

He says that it's unlikely the oils have the same effect in humans, but that it's too soon to rule out the possibility.

Weber decided to study the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on the notoriously sluggish birds based on his research of the semipalmated sandpiper, a small bird that breeds in the Canadian Arctic and spends winters in South America. Before making their annual 2,800-mile (4,500-kilometer) trek from Canada to Brazil, these birds spend two weeks feasting on mud shrimp, which Weber says pack the most omega-3 fatty acids—specifically n-3 eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and n-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—of any sea-dwelling creature.

After doubling their body mass, the sandpipers fly nonstop at about 37 miles (60 kilometers) per hour for three days; by the time they reach Brazil, they have lost all the body mass they gained shrimp-binging. Curious whether the omega-3's were responsible for the birds' endurance, Weber and grad student Simba Nagahuedi decided to test whether the oils had a similar effect on one of nature's more sedentary birds—bobwhite quails.

The researchers took about 40 quails, divided them into four groups, and fed all of them corn-based diets. In addition to the grub, birds in the first group were given a daily drop in the beak of EPA; those in the second group were given DHA; the third group received a mix of these two fatty acids, and the last group received plain corn oil. After six weeks, the researchers euthanized the birds and studied the cells in their chest muscles.

Their findings:  the quails that got EPA, DHA, or a mix of both had 58 to 90 percent higher levels of energy-producing enzymes (comparable to those in the super-athletic sandpipers) than those that received no omega-3s. Even human athletes who spend eight weeks doing extreme endurance training get only a 38 to 76 percent boost in these enzymes, Weber says. (He notes that researchers obtained the human results by extracting muscle tissue samples with large needles, a technique that would cause potentially life-threatening trauma in quails.)

Thus it seems the birds reaped the benefits of exercise without lifting a wing, so to speak.  It's likely this increased enzyme activity translated into greater endurance (studies in other animals suggest this is the case), but Weber says he's not positive this applies to quails, because the birds were uncooperative when researchers tried to give them physical fitness tests.

Could omega-3 fatty acids work similar magic in humans? One way of answering this question, Weber says, would be to feed people fatty acids for several weeks, biopsy their muscle tissue, and see if their enzyme activity increases. But he's skeptical.

"If the effect was so striking," he says, "it would be hard to believe that no one—athletes, trainers, or coaches—had stumbled upon it."

Image courtesy of Jean-Michel Weber, University of Ottawa