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Bobwhite quails are typically poor fliers and "not really endurance athletes at all," said researcher Jean-Michel Weber. ((Jean-Michel Weber/University of Ottawa))

It's a pity you're not a quail. Ottawa researchers have found that quails can boost their aerobic fitness just by sitting around and eating fats, provided they're the right kind.

The right kind happens to be omega-3 fatty acids, the same fats shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and lower blood pressure in humans.

After sedentary bobwhite quails were fed a supplement of omega-3 fatty acids for six weeks, their muscles showed a huge boost in the activity of enzymes that improve endurance compared to quails that didn't get the supplement, said a research paper published Friday in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

'If it was the same in humans, I'm sure somebody would have discovered it by now.'— Jean-Michel Weber, biologist

The same enzymes get more active and improve endurance in human athletes who train very hard for weeks, said University of Ottawa biologist Jean-Michel Weber, who conducted the study with his student Simba Nagahuedi.

"What was really surprising," he added, "is that even the most extreme regimes of endurance training in all kinds of mammals going from rats to dogs to humans…elicit changes in enzyme activity that are smaller than what we found here with the quails, with just feeding them omega-3 fatty acids."

Sandpipers seem to use omega-3 as 'enhancer'

In fact, the quails' muscles showed enzyme activity levels as high as that in migrating sandpipers, which fly from the Canadian Arctic all the way to South America every winter.

What are omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fat that the human body needs for metabolic functioning, but cannot produce. That makes it an "essential" fatty acid that humans must get from their food.

According to the American Heart Association, eating omega-3 fatty acids reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Foods that include high levels include salmon, halibut, sardines, albacore, trout, herring, walnut, flaxseed oil and canola oil.

It was the sandpipers that first suggested to Weber that omega-3 fatty acids might be a natural performance-enhancer.

En route to South America, they stop in the Bay of Fundy on Canada's Atlantic coast and spend two weeks fattening up on mud shrimps, known to be extremely high in omega-3 fatty acids. Weber said the evidence suggested that diet was used to enhance the birds' performance before their migration, but since the measurements were done in natural circumstances, other factors may have come into the picture besides the diet itself.

Sandpipers can't be kept in captivity, so Weber decided to try a controlled lab experiment using bobwhite quails, a bird that is normally very sedentary.

In the wild, the quails spend most of their time on the ground and hide under leaves when they are in danger, Weber said. If really threatened, they may fly, but only a few dozen metres at most.

"They're not really endurance athletes at all."

In fact, the birds in the experiment were such poor fliers that Weber's efforts to test their endurance directly were unsuccessful.

Effect likely small in mammals

Still, their apparent fitness level seemed to benefit enormously from the special diet, leading Weber to suggest that the effect of an omega-3 diet likely works on all birds.

So far, it hasn't been tested in mammals such has humans, although that is something Weber is looking into.

He thinks mammals may respond, but the effect couldn't be that significant, given that there are millions of people around the world training for endurance sports at any given time.

"The effect is so strong in birds — if it was the same in humans, I'm sure somebody would have discovered it by now."

Eating very large amounts of omega-3 fats (more than three grams per day) can cause problems in humans such as increased bleeding, increased levels of low-density lipoproteins (bad cholesterol) and increased susceptibility to bacterial diseases due to the suppression of immune and inflammation responses.