Fitness + Well-being

An ‘exercise pill’ may replace workouts in the future

Anyone with a job, kids, or heck, a life knows fitting in fitness isn’t always easy. Then there are the folks who can’t exercise at all — be it due to a pre-existing health condition or old age.

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If you’re among those groups, but want to reap the physical and emotional benefits of working out, what are you to do?

Turns out, a still-developing “exercise pill” may hold the answer in the future.

A new study published in the May edition of Cell Metabolism identified a chemical compound that helped increase athletic endurance by 70 percent in mice.

Though the benefit may not necessarily translate in humans, researchers say their study results could hold promise for a day when non-exercisers can enjoy a better mood, improved heart health and a longer lifespan — without breaking a sweat.

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In their study, authors from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, report that activating a genetic pathway typically triggered by running produced the same benefits of the exercise, including stamina and fat loss, without movement.

"It's well known that people can improve their aerobic endurance through training," senior author Ronald Evans, professor and director of the Gene Expression Laboratory at Salk, said in a news release. "The question for us was: How does endurance work? And if we really understand the science, can we replace training with a drug?"

In a previous study, researchers found that sedentary mice that were genetically engineered to have a permanently activated gene called PPAR delta (PPARD) had better markers for physical fitness than ordinary sedentary mice. In particular, the mice developed long-distance running skills, tended to burn more fat, and were more responsive to insulin. That study identified that the chemical compound GW1516 (GW) activated PPARD, which mimicked the fat burning and insulin response benefits, but fell short because it did not lead the rodents to become long-distance runners unless they exercised daily.

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In the current study, researchers tweaked their method to try to find a formula that could mimic the effects of exercise without the need for movement. They again used formerly sedentary mice, but they administered a higher dose of GW, and increased the administration period from four to eight weeks.

They put these mice on treadmills and found those that didn’t take the drug could run for 160 minutes — but those who did could run about 70 percent longer, or about 270 minutes. The mice continued to be more responsive to insulin and resistant to weight gain.

When researchers took a closer look at what was going on molecularly, study authors found the chemical triggered a gene to switch from burning sugar to burning fat — an important marker for preserved brain function and endurance.

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Researchers also analyzed the mice’s muscles and, to their surprise, found that the mice who took the exercise drug didn’t have additional mitochondria, the main drivers for energy in cells; blood vessels; or more tissue that burns fat instead of sugar. To the researchers, that proved the benefits of aerobic exercise don’t have to be obtained through exercise itself — this drug works too.

"Exercise activates PPARD, but we're showing that you can do the same thing without mechanical training. It means you can improve endurance to the equivalent level as someone in training, without all of the physical effort," first author Weiwei Fan, a Salk research associate, said in the release.

Next, researchers are working to identify a pharmaceutical company that can develop clinical trials to test the drug in humans.

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If it’s successful, not only could the exercise pill signal the end of gyms — it also may help improve the United States’ staggering obesity and type 2 diabetes rates.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of adult Americans are obese and about two-thirds are overweight, while about 29 million, or about 9.3 percent, of Americans have diabetes.

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