President's Report

Uncovering the benefits of dietary supplements

If there was a supplement that took the place of regular exercise and proper nutrition, more than likely a lot of people would take it.

While there isn’t any pill that will give someone a perfect body or take away the need for exercise or a balanced diet to maintain good health, some dietary supplements are better than others and many have benefits worth considering.

Determining which dietary supplements augment good eating and exercise habits is what Paul Miller, a professor of exercise science and the director of Elon’s Undergraduate Research Program, is trying to accomplish with his research.

“The problem these days is that we are bombarded with information,” Miller says. “... How do you weed through all of it to get something that is truly beneficial and understandable? That’s a difficult thing for people, especially for people less inclined to exercise and more inclined to take a pill. That being said, there are a lot of really good supplements out there that can help support the benefits of exercise.”

In his research, Miller investigates how dietary supplements—a more than $14 billion industry—impact exercise performance and outcomes, recovery time and cognitive function. While the research can be helpful for people who work out or participate in rigorous physical activity, it also has applications beyond sports.

“There is a wealth of longevity data that people who expend 1,500 to 2,000 calories in regular physical activity live longer and stay healthier,” Miller says. “What we want to do is make exercise more palatable so more people will exercise regularly and derive health benefits from their exercise.”

The results of the research also could impact people who work in high-stress situations, such as paramedics, firefighters and military personnel.

“We want people, who are expected to perform at high exercise intensities or in really harsh environments, to be able to make good decisions because those decisions then become life-and-death decisions,” Miller says.

For example, if firefighters who spend hours fighting a blaze suddenly need to rush into a burning building, there might be a dietary supplement that will enable them to perform at their peak.

“If we can make nutritional recommendations to support those good decisions, then we are really doing a service to the community,” Miller says.

Miller has investigated the benefits of taking supplements such as conjugated linoleic acid and protease. His most recent research involves the potential benefits of taking quercetin, which is purported to help increase aerobic capacity and cognitive function during exercise.

Previous studies indicate that people given dosages of quercetin in the week leading up to an exhaustive activity, had a 14 percent increase in aerobic capacity. In collaboration with Professor of Physical Therapy Education Stephen Bailey, Miller’s study involved participants who were given the quercetin right before riding an exercise bike for three hours in an environment that was 90 degrees with 70 percent humidity.

“We found no effects in time trial performance,” Miller says. “It’s not that quercetin doesn’t work. It’s just in the formulation we used, how it was administered and the exercise protocol we used, it didn’t seem to have that much of an impact.”

The quercetin research is still in the beginning phase. Miller plans to continue to look at the supplement and its possible benefits.

Sometimes supplements prove to be more effective if used in conjunction with physical activity. For example, in a study Miller conducted on the benefits of conjugated linoleic acid, which is supposed to increase muscle and decrease fat even without exercise, he found that only to be true if the supplement was taken in high doses. Unfortunately, those high doses negatively impacted blood lipids.

However, when the dose was reduced in half and combined with exercise, participants gained lean muscle, saw changes in body fat percentages and their blood lipid profiles actually improved. “Now we have something we can work with, right?” Miller says.

Miller’s goal is to conduct quality, evidence-based research so people can make informed choices and stick with their exercise routines.

“If people feel their exercise is more efficacious, they are getting more out of it and they are feeling better during it, they may be more likely to stick with it.” Miller says. “If I can exercise at a higher intensity and I feel pretty good while I do it, I am more likely to continue to do that and derive health benefits.”

Miller joined Elon’s faculty in 1997. He received a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from the University of Michigan, a Master of Education from Cleveland State University and a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Miami. He teaches a variety of courses, including exercise physiology, exercise biochemistry, chronic and acute disease, research methods, sports medicine and exercise motivation.

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