It's the news we've all been waiting for – scientists have discovered that small quantities of dark chocolate may impact health in a similar way to exercise.

Dr Moh Malek, who led the study at Wayne State University in Detroit, explained that epicatechin, a plant compound found in chocolate, seemed to stimulate the same muscle response as vigorous activity.

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'Mitochondria produce energy which is used by the cells in the body. More mitochondria mean more energy is produced, and the more work can be performed," he said.

''Aerobic exercise, such as running or cycling, is known to increase the number of mitochondria in muscle cells. Our study has found that epicatechin seems to bring about the same response – particularly in the heart and skeletal muscles.''

The research involved supplying mice with a specific type of epicatechin from cocoa twice a day for 15 days. Another group was given the compound plus 30 minutes of treadmill training each day, and a third group only used the treadmill.

Scientists found that the mice fed epicatechin were able to exercise for longer.

Malek explained: “Those getting only epicatechin had a significantly better muscle performance and took longer to tire than those that only exercised.

“The group doing both showed even greater improvement, so it appears epicatechin combined with exercise may be a viable means to offset muscle ageing.”

Malek added that he would like to run tests to establish whether humans can reap the same benefits from chocolate as mice.