Exercise in a Pill? Study Finds Breakthrough Medication Mimics Workout Benefits

Exercise in a Pill? Study Finds Breakthrough Medication Mimics Workout Benefits
  • A pill may be able to mimic the effects of exercise, new research shows.

  • Researchers found that a recently developed compound may be able to increase muscle fiber and improve endurance, similar to the effects of exercise.

  • Experts explain the findings and what this could mean for your fitness routine.

What if you could get the same metabolic benefits of hitting the gym without breaking a sweat—simply by taking an “exercise pill?” Scientists from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis spent 10 years creating a compound to mimic the effects of exercise on the body, in pill form.

A study presented at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) discovered that new chemical compounds appear capable of doing just that—at least in mice. The metabolic changes that happen in our body when we exercise involve the activation of specialized proteins, known as estrogen-related receptors (ERRs). Researchers have now developed a compound called SLU-PP-332, that is capable of activating all three types of ERR—mimicking the effects of exercise on these proteins. In experiments with mice, the team found this compound increased muscle fiber and improved the animals’ endurance when they ran on a rodent treadmill.

The idea of a pharmaceutical therapy that can replicate the biological effects of exercise in the body is certainly an exciting one, says Michael Racke, M.D., medical director of neurology for Quest Diagnostics. The health benefits of regular exercise are well documented. But, unfortunately, Dr. Racke explains that “many individuals cannot be physically active on a regular basis, sometimes due to medical reasons.” For instance, patients with neurological disorders, including advanced dementia and certain neuromuscular disorders, may not be able to be physically active to a meaningful degree, he notes. The idea that by taking a pill one can reap the physical benefits of working out could do wonders for these populations.

But, it’s not a magic pill. There are a few aspects to keep in mind—mainly that because this research is done on rodents and not on humans, we can’t say for certain whether or not people would see the same effects from taking this pill, says Gregory Katz, M.D., a cardiologist at NYU Langone Health. In addition, as the abstract notes, there are a number of organ systems that can be affected by ERR activation where human studies may be very informative, says Dr. Racke.

And, keep in mind that this compound only activates one family of receptors and exercise has many other effects on the body, says Dr. Katz. At this point, this compound is only shown to have beneficial metabolic effects. So, we don’t yet know if this drug could benefit specific health conditions.

While studies in animals with this compound indicate that it could potentially be beneficial against conditions such as obesity, heart failure, or a decline in kidney function with age, this drug will not likely be used as a treatment for any health conditions any time soon, he explains. “There’s a lot of work to do before this would ever be considered for use in a human,” he notes.

The bottom line

It’s important to reiterate that this research is still in very early stages and the results should be taken with a grain of salt. There are people trying to figure out whether the benefits of exercise can be replicated with medications, but there’s a lot of hard work to do before we have any clue whether this is science or science fiction, says Dr. Katz.

“Significant additional research in human subjects is clearly needed before any of us should think an ‘exercise pill’ will enable us to skip the treadmill and barbells anytime soon,” adds Dr. Racke.

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