Gym in a pill

Should exercise ever be as simple as filling a prescription?

October 19, 2015
For some, pills may be the treadmills and bench-presses of the future. [Image credit: Flickr user e-Magine Art]

Food in pill form is one of the many promises The Jetsons has been making to us since the TV show first aired in the 1960s. If you think about it for a minute, though, the Jetsons are peddling a pretty miserable future.

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that it’s probably physically impossible to stuff an entire day’s worth of calories into one small pill. Even if you consumed all of your essential nutrients as pills, you’d still have problems down the line due to a lack of micronutrients like iron or iodine. But to me, the strongest argument against food pills is satisfaction: Most of us don’t like taking pills even when they’re for necessary reasons like medication, so what would make a pill any more gratifying if it’s for dinner? Hamburgers are just too enjoyable to go for the alternative.

Another type of pill that could replace our daily activities is getting a lot of attention recently. A review published earlier this month in the journal Trends in Pharmacological Study examines the relative stages of “exercise pills” currently in development that could mimic all the effects of physical activity without putting on your running shoes.

The basic idea is that by studying the biochemical reactions that occur during and after exercise, scientists can develop compounds that replicate those reactions and skip the sweat. These include speeding up the burning of fatty acids — giving the body more energy to use — and increasing the number of mitochondria within cells, allowing the body to use energy more efficiently. In fact, several existing drugs have already been proposed as potential “exercise pill” candidates because of effects like these, but the review notes that the field is still in its infancy.

Of course, there are people who would almost certainly benefit from these sorts of drugs; particularly those who cannot exercise regularly for reasons ranging from obesity to amputations and spinal injuries, the review authors note. They also point out that “nothing can fully substitute for physical exercise” — though that likely wouldn’t discourage people from trying.

The problem is that another review published in Cell Metabolism indicated that over a thousand detectable molecular reactions occur in skeletal muscles alone during exercise. Delivering a thousand effects in one pill without any side effects is a big demand, so any developed exercise pills would likely have to focus on the major ones. Just like how a food pill probably couldn’t give you all of your micronutrients, these potential exercise pills would leave you without some of the benefits of exercise if you relied solely on them to stay fit.

And that’s just effects on the skeletal muscles. The first review noted that currently, these potential drugs wouldn’t provide any of the other advantages of exercise, like bone strength or cognitive benefits.

Even so, publications like the Daily Mail have already published clickbait stories exclaiming “Couch potatoes rejoice!” At least they point out in a photo caption that the drugs may be helpful for people who suffer from illness or paralysis. Partial credit there, I suppose.

Little to no coverage has been given to what I will hereby call the “Jetsons Principle” of satisfaction. Just like food in pill form, exercise in pill form may very well be more convenient, but that doesn’t make it an even trade. Just as swallowing a “turkey/gravy/mashed potato/cranberry/buttered roll/stuffing pill” is quicker than eating a Thanksgiving feast, swallowing a “three sets of bench-presses pill” is quicker than going to the gym three days a week.

But I doubt many people find the idea of eating a pill instead of a meal satisfying, so why would exercise be any different? For those people who cannot workout due to a health problem, exercise pills could eventually prove very beneficial. For the rest of us, consider which is more satisfying: bragging on social media about finishing a 5k, or swallowing a pill?

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1 Comment

The obese says:

Well at least it would be refreshing to see someone not take to Facebook to say they’ve finished a 5k run

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