Say goodbye to your treadmill.
Soon, deadlifts and rowing machines will be a thing of the past. Don’t even start talking about burpees—in the future, a “burpee” will be something that happens on the way back from the fridge during an all-week binge-watching marathon.
Sound great? If you hate exercise or if you simply don’t have time to hit the gym on a regular basis, we may have some good news.
Researchers from the Salk Institute recently unveiled an “exercise pill” in a study published in the journal Cell Metabolism. The drug appears to offer many of the health benefits of regular exercise, according to a press release announcing the study.
“We previously activated the pathway in mice through genetic engineering,” said senior author Ronald Evans, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, “and discovered that doing so turned the animals into long-distance runners, and they gained many of the health benefits of exercise.”
The “long-distance runners” bit might have been hyperbole, but the Salk Institute team’s findings are impressive. Their exercise pill has a brilliant mechanism of action, and if it’s proven effective, it may greatly expand scientific knowledge of how exercise affects the human body.
The drug appears to work by activating a gene pathway designated as peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor delta (PPARD).
This pathway may be responsible for endurance during periods of heavy physical and mental exertion.
“It’s well known that people can improve their aerobic endurance through training,” said senior author Ronald Evans, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and holder of Salk’s March of Dimes Chair in Molecular and Developmental Biology. “The question for us was: how does endurance work? And if we really understand the science, can we replace training with a drug?”
The PPARD pathway seemed to offer a pharmacological mechanism for replicating the effects of exercise. Mice that took the drug burned more fat and were able to exercise for longer than the control group.
“This study suggests that burning fat is less a driver of endurance than a compensatory mechanism to conserve glucose,” said Michael Downes, a Salk senior scientist and co-senior author of the paper. “PPARD is suppressing all the points that are involved in sugar metabolism in the muscle so glucose can be redirected to the brain, thereby preserving brain function.”
In other words, the “exercise pill” prevented muscle fibers from using sugar as an energy source.
Instead, the muscles burned fat—notable, since muscles typically prefer to burn sugar. This process is basically what happens when a person exercises, as the same gene pathway gets activated.
“Exercise activates PPARD, but we’re showing that you can do the same thing without mechanical training,” said Weiwei Fan, a Salk research associate and the paper’s first author. “It means you can improve endurance to the equivalent level as someone in training, without all of the physical effort.”
There are a couple of important caveats. The study notes that the mice that took the exercise drug didn’t exhibit all of the physiological changes that typically accompany aerobic exercise; they didn’t build more blood vessels, for instance, and they didn’t develop muscle fibers to burn fat rather than sugar.
But that changed somewhat when the mice remained active after receiving the drug. Overall, the test subjects enjoyed most of the health benefits associated with exercise, including better insulin responsiveness and greater resistance to weight gain.
Mice are not humans, obviously, and the drug has a long way to go before it can be safely used by humans. However, the team behind the study believes that their drug could be extremely useful from a therapeutic perspective.
So, will athletes be able to use this as the next performance-enhancing drug?
Not likely. The Salk Institute team sees their drug as a potentially useful medication, but they don’t intend to replace exercise entirely.
“The drug will provide the most benefit for people who are physically unable to exercise due to other health conditions, like having [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], being elderly, or wheelchair-bound,” said Downes.
Of course, if the drug is safe for humans, Downes understands its potential for abuse, and he’s ready to burst your bubble.
“We realize athletes may want to take this drug for a competitive advantage, but it’s really meant for people who simply don’t have the option of exercising.”
Still, the implications are tremendous. If effective, the pill could help patients recover from surgeries or help people with severe weight issues restore their health.
The medication probably won’t be available for therapeutic use for many years. In the meantime, we’re stuck with exercise.
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, along with strength training, which is particularly important for adults over the age of 30. If you want to increase weight loss and improve your overall health, aim for at least 300 minutes of activity. Ideally, you should also reduce periods of sitting and try for at least 30 minutes of activity per day.
Alas, exercise is hard work. For the time being, there’s no magic pill to replace it—but that might change sooner than you’d think.