Could an “exercise pill” really replace going to the gym? In a new article in Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, Ismail Laher, professor in the UBC Department of Anesthesiology, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, says it’s unrealistic to expect that there will be a pill that replaces exercising anytime soon. But a pill could help people with mobility issues or gym rats who want to reach their goals faster.
Why are we developing exercise pills?
We are at the early stages of this exciting new field of drug development and there is great potential to assist those who are unable to exercise regularly because of spinal cord injuries, paralysis, stroke, obesity, bad knees or back or other conditions.
We have recognized the need for exercise pills for some time. Recent research makes this an achievable goal based on our improved understanding of the benefits and molecular targets of physical exercise. We know that exercise is good for our metabolism, circulation, bone strength, and the function of organs such as the heart, brain and liver. The trick for developing exercise pills is to make drugs that hit multiple targets.
Could people who don’t have mobility problems use exercise pills?
I don’t see any shortage of uses by the general population. At this time, exercise pills offer a more targeted approach to achieving stronger muscles, possibly greater endurance and more efficient muscle activity. The pills work on the skeletal muscles and people could use them to cut down on the time it takes to reach their fitness goals. These benefits could be achieved without the many side effects that come with agents such as anabolic steroids.
The biggest caveat is that there’s much more to exercise than simply developing faster and stronger muscles. None of the candidate exercise pills fully mimic the beneficial effects of exercise. Exercise boosts your wellbeing, cognition, and raises your plasma levels of endorphins. If you have a choice, go for exercise. If you don’t have a choice, then the pill can help prevent muscle atrophy.
What are some of the concerns about the use of exercise pills?
The whole point of exercise is to increase cardiac output and stimulate blood flow in blood vessels. Many of the cardiovascular benefits of exercise occur by altering the growth and function of blood vessels. Exercise creates something called shear stress that occurs when your heart starts pumping faster. Shear stress interacts with the inner lining of blood vessels and activates signals that cause blood vessels to expand and reduce their stiffness. This is really key to exercise and you’re not going to get it with pills.
Exercise pills also offer a new way of sports doping (in humans and animals) that currently may not be part of the screening process. This is a real challenge to professional sporting regulatory bodies.
This field is at a very early stage and much more research is needed. There are questions we need to answer. For example, what happens when you go off the pills — how long lasting are their biological effects? We also need to determine dosing and side effects. It’s surprising that there has not yet been a study to directly compare the effects of exercise and exercise pills.