Article and Comment: Are we ready for an Exercise Pill?

Is it possible to take a pill and get the benefits of exercise without doing any of the work?

When you exercise, there is a drop in energy levels and a release of calcium ions. This causes contracting muscles to release a series of messenger molecules. These molecules start a cascade of events that results in the benefits of exercise. There was a study in mice in California in 2002 researching just this. Biologist Ronald Evans found a particular drug, GW1516, worked exactly this way. It allowed mice to run twice a far on their wheel as before without doing any further work.

This drug is not currently available for humans. It is however, a banned doping product. GW1516 has been detected in use in elite level cycling and boxing.

Another study in Boston in 2012 led by Bruce Spiegelman researched this theory as well. He discovered the hormone irisin caused mice to lose weight without doing any work. Irisin is released from muscles during exercise. In the study, irisin caused mice to change passive white fat into energy burning brown fat.


So, if these pills can achieve the benefits of exercise without the work, should we use them?

This is a hard question to answer. On one hand, there are many benefits from ”doing the work” during an exercise program, such as :
• The co-ordination and movement learning effects of practicing and doing a movement. During an exercise or movement, you learn from that activity and get better at it. This is due to two factors. You get both wiring changes in the brain (cerebellum) and locally at the muscle level. At a muscle level there is an increase in dendrites from the nerves to the muscle. This results from practicing a movement.
• The mental health benefits of exercise. There are direct effects from the release of endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. Indirectly, there are social effects of being part of a group, socialising and doing a shared activity.

However, should this be replaced with a pill that could only give you the physical benefits of exercise? These benefits include reduced white fat and improved endurance performance.

Is there are place for this for those who can not exercise? For example, dependant residents in a care facility. Or it could be used as a supplement for exercise, to get the most from an exercise program.

As technology such as these evolve, these are questions that we and the medical/health professions will face. We will have to decide upon these things for our individual benefits and the benefits of society as a whole.


Marchant J (2020) A workout in a pill? New Scientist, 24th April 2021, p.46-49


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Author: Michael Dermansky

Michael has now been working in physiotherapy for over 20 years, since graduating from Melbourne University in 1998 and is even more passionate about getting the best outcomes for clients than he was then. Michael is always studying and looking for new and innovative ways to improve the service at MD Health, including and not limited to the ideas from the fitness industry and great customer service companies. In his spare moments, he loves spending time with his two children, Sebastian and Alexander and hopefully taking them skiing more and more often.

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