Exercise Pill in the Works

New research provides blueprint for drug discovery

by Dr. Kiki Sanford | 05 Nov 2015 at 5:13 AM

Do you get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise and two weight-lifting sessions each week?

If you’re like the majority of Americans, the answer is a big fat NO. For many, even the minimum amount of physical activity recommended seems daunting.

But what if you could pop a pill in lieu of taking a walk or jumping on a treadmill?  

Related: The Truth about Exercise

Some day, that might be a reality. Right now, researchers are diligently working to understand the changes that take place in the human body in response to exercise. They want to create a blueprint that could eventually provide a recipe for just such an "exercise pill."

This new study helps create a blueprint that could eventually provide a recipe for an "exercise pill."

A study recently published in Cell Metabolism explains advances in identifying the molecular controls of the body’s exercise response.

“The exercise changes we have observed are a bit like a railway network," lead study author David James said in an interview with LifeZette.

“With time we hope to find the major control points — what we call hubs. If we can 'drug' one of those, this may spark many of the changes that occur with exercise in one fell swoop," said James, the Leonard P. Ullmann chair of Metabolic Systems at the University of Sydney Charles Perkins Centre in Camperdown, New South Wales, Australia. "Alternatively, ‘the pill’ may contain several drugs that target different nodes in the network.”

Engaging in exercise causes a cascade of molecular changes within the body. Many of the miniscule, cell-level alterations affect energy metabolism and insulin sensitivity throughout the whole body.

Related: How to Exercise at Work

This particular study identified 1,004 unique chemical alterations that are activated immediately following exercise. Some of the changes were expected, but many had never before been implicated in exercise.

What the discovery means is that we now have a more precise map of what happens at the molecular level within muscle and other cells as a result of exercise. That map could point the way to future pharmaceutical discovery.

In order to get there, James said, “We now have to figure out which pieces of the exercise network regulate the beneficial effects of exercise.”

“People would be interested in a pill that could mimic the effects of exercise because many people are always looking for a quick fix with the least of amount of effort,” Angel Jensen, a personal trainer in Santa Barbara, California, told LifeZette. “There would be a demand for it because of the illusion we do not have 'time' to exercise. Because of the standard American diet, many people are sluggish and feel tired all day.”

Related: Let's Get Physical

Jensen said she’s not so sure this will be enough to fully replace what the body does naturally.

She worries “that the pill would mimic the effects of exercise without actually changing your body on a deeper level, similar to how some pills help with the symptom but do not fix the cause of the issue.”

On a deeper level, she said she is concerned about an exercise pill’s effects on people’s mental health.

"The act of exercising can do so much for your overall well-being, more than just the physical changes that happen in your body," Jensen said. "Exercising can change the way you think and feel about your body and your life. It gives you a routine, makes you feel accomplished, and allows you to see strength or endurance gains. My challenge is, Would the pill really be able to give you all that?”

While many of us might feel our lazy bone tickled by the idea of a pill that could substitute for exercise, the true goal for this area of research is to help individuals for whom activity is either difficult or impossible. That's probably not you and me.

And before you cancel your gym membership, keep in mind that such a wonder drug may not deliver the results you envision -- or be available anytime soon.

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