Exercise in a Pill?

Is there a pill you can take that will give you all the benefits of exercise without having to break a sweat?

No. But you could be forgiven for thinking so if you have seen the headlines:

  • ‘Exercise in a Pill’ Could Boost Endurance Without the Need for Training
  • Scientists might create exercise in a pill with this newly discovered particle
  • “Exercise-in-a-pill” boosts athletic endurance by 70 percent

Headlines might be all you see. 

A 2016 study found that 60% of those in the study shared stories on social media without reading them. When you see a story shared by a friend on Facebook or Twitter, you might accept it — and share it with your friends — without fact checking, and even without reading the story. You’ve heard it from someone you trust, right?

Unfortunately, a lot of health information spreads in this way.

The truth about exercise in a pill

More than a decade ago, researchers working with mice in the Salk Institute’s Gene Expression Laboratory found drugs that copied one of the natural responses to exercise. That is, when the mice exercised, two pathways in their brains responded. When they were given drugs that simultaneously stimulated the same two pathways, they saw some of the benefits of exercise in the mice, including better insulin response and stable weight when eating a high-fat diet. 

The mice didn’t get any fitter, of course. So the researchers put them on treadmills for 50 minutes each day. Sure enough, they got fitter. When the real exercise was combined with the “exercise in a pill” drugs, the effects were better than with exercise alone.

By 2017, the researchers had come up with a pill — still for mice — that increased endurance by more than 70 per cent. The mice were able to run longer than before, even if they hadn’t been training.

This is not the only way to measure fitness, but the scientists were optimistic that the drug might be able to help human beings who were too frail to exercise, or that it might help treat obesity. Activating PPAR delta, which is what their drugs did, could be useful in treating fatty liver disease or muscular dystrophy. 

In the same year, research on “exercise mimetics,” or chemicals that mimicked some of the effects of exercise, was published by researchers in Baltimore. We’re still thinking about mice here. 

Human studies 

Fast forward to 2021, and researchers at Australian National University have found a similar signal sent by muscles to the eyes during exercise. These researchers were studying the effects of exercise on the retina of the eye, especially as people age. They found that lipid particles carry information from the muscles to the retina.

PPAR delta is part of the same system. The Australian researchers, like the American researchers, are looking at the messages that exercise sends to the brain, the effects that make exercise so important and good for our bodies. “We found the benefits of exercise extend far beyond what has traditionally been known,” said Dr Joshua Chu-Tan of the ANU Clear Vision Research Lab.

He and his colleagues speculated that one day the specific messages sent by muscles to the retina during exercise could be replicated or simulated. Then people who are physically unable to exercise might get some of the benefits. 

Back to the mice

Meanwhile, at Deakin University, also in Australia, researchers found a drug that helped treat heart disease in obese mice. It didn’t make the mice lose weight, but they did show greater endurance and better glucose management, like the mice in the earlier studies. It also improved heart function in mice that had obesity-related heart disease.

Once again, the researchers emphasize that their drug, which they hope to try out with humans in another four or five years, could be helpful for people who cannot get the benefits of exercise because they are too weak or ill to exercise.

So no exercise pill?

No. Researchers continue to find new ways that exercise benefits our bodies. They continue to learn more about the process that’s involved, which is not completely understood. We know that exercise has amazing benefits for just about every part of the body, but we don’t really know why.

As scientists figure this out, they hope to find ways that people who can’t benefit from vigorous exercise will be able to get some of the benefits in other ways. Maybe with pills. 

It’s interesting research, but the real message here is that it’s important to get the whole story before we make up our minds, and certainly before we take action.

When you see health claims that surprise you, make a note to ask your doctor.