Scientists Are Working on a Pill That Just Might Replace Exercise

The idea is to create a drug that mimics the molecular changes exercise causes in the body. But it’s no small challenge

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An exercise pill feels like cheating.

It doesn’t seem right that a simple drug should allow you to avoid the crucible of pain, sweating and aggravation that we’ve come to see as the price that must be paid for a fit and low-fat body.

But science marches on—and now what was once only the stuff of mid-workout fantasies may actually be possible.

Researchers continue to make progress in identifying the molecular processes that occur when we exercise and the good things that does for our bodies. That knowledge, they say, should allow them to one day fashion a pill that has the same effect.

A blueprint for exercise 

In a study published in the journal Cell Metabolism earlier this month, scientists at the University of Sydney in Australia shared details of what they described as a “breakthrough” in deconstructing what happens inside a human body during exercise.

The researchers asked four “untrained” but healthy men to engage in high-intensity exercise for 10 minutes, then subjected them to a technique known as mass spectrometry to analyze how that exercise affected protein activity in cells throughout their bodies.

What the scientists found is that there’s a lot going on—specifically about 1,000 different molecular changes in our muscles during even a short bout of physical exertion. But that provided them with the first real comprehensive blueprint of exercise.

Clearly, it’s a complicated map, suggesting that creating a pill mimicking all that cellular activity is a major undertaking. Most traditional drugs target individual molecules; here we’re talking about multiple molecules, maybe entire pathways of molecules working together.

Or as study co-author, Nolan Hoffman, noted in a University of Sydney release, exercise causes an “extremely complex, cascading set of responses within human muscle.” Previously, most of the molecular responses this study found had never been associated with exercise. 

Tricking cells

Another paper on the subject was also published in early October in the journal Trends in Pharmacological Sciences. This one summarized the state of exercise pill research, pointing out that much of it has focused on activating a particular protein that not only plays a key role in maintaining the body’s energy balance, but also can cause changes in muscle cells similar to what occurs with exercise.

One example the paper cited was a molecule created by a team of scientists at the University of Southampton in Great Britain.  Named “compound 14,” it works by setting off a chemical reaction that ultimately tricks cells into thinking they have run low on energy. That causes them to boost both their metabolism and their uptake of glucose.   

The researchers tested the compound 14 on two groups of mice, one fed a normal diet while the other was fed a high-fat diet, which made them obese and glucose intolerant—a sign of prediabetes. The mice treated with compound 14 who were fed a normal diet retained a normal weight and blood glucose levels. But the mice fed a high-fat diet who were given a single dose of the compound had their blood glucose level drop to near normal. Then, when the mice fed a high-fat diet were given a single dose of compound 14 every day for seven days, their glucose tolerance improved and they lost roughly 5 percent of their body weight.

If compound 14 works on humans, it could become a way to treat both obesity and type 2 diabetes.

This could take a while

Researchers also believe that exercise pills could really benefit people limited in what they can do physically—stroke victims, amputees and those with spinal cord injuries. But for most of us, no pill will provide all the benefits of real exercise, at least in the foreseeable future.

No exercise drug being tested would also make your bones stronger, speed your blood flow or pump up your heart rate. Nor would it lower your stress or get your endorphins flowing. As Ismail Laher, a co-author on the Trends In Pharmacological Sciences study, told Time, what’s now being studied would only mimic “a very small slice of the pie.”

Hold on to your running shoes. 

Here’s other recent research on exercise:

  • Breathe easy: According to new research at Concordia University in Montreal, doing just 30 minutes of exercise a day can ease asthma symptoms in adults. And, say the researchers, the workout doesn’t have to be that strenuous to be effective—just walking or doing yoga can help.
  • Don't stop now: Meanwhile, a study published in the journal Circulation suggests that the commonly-recommended practice of 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day may not be long enough. Researchers say that if you really want to have an impact in helping your heart, you need to at least double that amount of exercise time.
  • And that’s why it’s called runner’s high: That happy feeling you get during a good run may come from the same process in the brain as the one activated by smoking marijuana. That’s the conclusion of a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that the release of endocannabinoids in the brain, rather than endorphins, is what causes a runner’s high. 

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