Exercise in a pill looms closer

Rather than spending hours in the gym, a new wonder pill could allow us to reap the rewards of exercise without the physical effort.

The idea of an ‘exercise pill’ might be music to the ears of couch potatoes and workaholics, but researchers believe it could transform the lives of people who are unable to exercise because of obesity or serious physical disabilities.

Scientists have recently discovered a chemical compound that can activate a gene normally stimulated by running. By activating this gene – called PPAR delta (PPARD) – in mice, the researchers were able to mimic the beneficial effects of aerobic exercise, such as increased endurance and fat burning.

It was found that by activating PPARD with an experimental drug (known as GW1516), mice were able run on a treadmill for 270 minutes before exhaustion set in. Mice that went without the drug lasted only 160 minutes before reaching their physical limit.

The endurance boost was also met by other health benefits, with mice who had the drug for eight weeks putting on less weight and showing better control in their blood sugar levels. This suggested a pill might also help people with diabetes.

These results prove that it may be possible to improve endurance to the equivalent level as someone in training, without all of the physical effort.

When some athletes ‘hit the wall’ it means their brain can no longer get enough glucose (the brain’s only source of energy). At that point, they can’t go any further. This study illustrates that if you want to move the wall, there is more than one way to do so.

Published in a scientific journal called Cell Metabolism, senior author Ronald Evans at the Salk Institute in San Diego and colleagues say that their findings advance the possibility of ‘exercise in a pill’ – that is, a drug that can simulate the positive benefits of exercise.

The national activity guidelines recommend that adults engage in at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week over five or more separate sessions in order to improve overall health and fitness.

There is no doubt that exercise is valuable for many different kinds of health problems, however the National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey found that only 43 percent of Australian adults meet these guidelines.

While it may be due to the lack of motivation, for some individuals – such as elderly adults or individuals with mobility problems – the exercise recommendations are simply unachievable. The discovery of this pill could effectively give these groups of people some of the benefits of exercise and may allow them to a place where they can start to exercise for real.

So, is it time to throw in the sweat towel? Well, not quite – there’s still a long way to go before humans can use this drug. Nevertheless, this research presents a very promising pathway. Stay tuned!