Could exercise someday be replaced with a simple pill? It might sound like the far-out idea from a lazy dystopian future, but it’s an idea that’s already being explored by a number of different scientists, with some promising results.
This kind of “exercise in a pill” isn’t intended for couch potatoes. One of the big pushes behind this research is people who aren’t able to exercise but would benefit from it, such as the elderly, people with severe obesity, paralyzed people, or those recovering from surgery.
Regular exercise is one of the very best “medicines” for your body, especially when it comes to slowing down aging. It also often has a welcome effect on blood pressure, heart rate, fitness, body fat, body weight, mental well-being, and cognitive sharpness. While it seems unlikely scientists will ever be able to find a substitute for the real deal, they have been keen to see whether treatment could spark some of the much-needed molecular processes sparked by exercise without any physical activity.
One interesting study from 2017 looked to see whether the fitness of mice could be improved simply by taking drugs known as GW501516 and GW1516, which are sold on the black market as illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
After taking this drug for eight weeks, the mice could run on a treadmill for 70 percent longer than controls – over 100 minutes longer. It worked by activating a gene pathway that prevents sugar from being an energy source during exercise and makes the muscles burn fat instead.
This kind of fitness, however, is just one facet of exercise. A more recent study by Tokyo Medical and Dental University, published in Bone Research, developed a novel drug that mimics the changes in muscle and bone that occur as a result of exercise.
Known as locamidazole, the aminoindazole derivative drug was given to mice and was shown to stimulate the growth of muscle cells and bone-forming cells (osteoblasts) while suppressing the growth of bone-resorbing cells (osteoclasts). In theory, this suggests that the drug was helping to provide the bone and muscle-strengthening benefits of exercise.
Another study published earlier this year in the journal Nature managed to pinpoint a molecule in the blood that is produced during exercise. After giving mice this molecule, they found they lessened their food intake and improve their metabolic profile.
So far, much of the legwork has been done within animal studies and there are very few researchers testing out this kind of drug on humans yet.
It might also be apparent that each avenue of research only tackles one aspect of how exercise benefits the body. One might be able to address fitness, and another can give the bones a boost, but could a single treatment ever provide all the complex advantages of exercise? It seems unlikely – but not impossible.
With that said, there certainly appears to be some potential to help people stuck in a hospital bed or experiencing another condition that impairs their ability to exercise.