A Pill That Has The Same Effects As Exercise May Be A Thing Soon, But It's Not What You Think

by Caroline Burke

If you could take a pill that does the exercising for you, would you do it? Well, that may be an option for some people in the world in the coming decades — but it's not exactly what you think. The exercise pill might be the next big health innovation for humanity, but that doesn't exactly mean it'll be available for everyone.

The Washington Post reports that researchers are working to create a potential exercise pill, which would provide sick and otherwise sedentary people with some of the benefits of exercise without having to move. The most advanced of the drugs, per The New Yorker, is currently called GW501516, nicknamed 516. According to biologist Ronald Evans of the Salk Institute, one of the lead scientists on the study, a daily dose of 516 might benefit people who lead sedentary lifestyles due to medical reasons, and whose bodies are beginning to atrophy as a result. He told The Washington Post,

People are designed to move. But if they can’t, it’s not healthy to be sedentary. That’s why we are developing this drug.

Let's be clear on one thing here: This is not a pill for couch potatoes, nor is it meant for athletes looking to get faster, bigger, or stronger.

The goal of the pill is strictly to help those who are medically unable to exercise themselves.

The drug works to mimic the effects of exercise chemically in your body by triggering a genetic circuit that acts as a "back door into the exercise genetic network," Evans told The Washington Post. The 516 pill allows you to experience the "chemical process of exercise at the molecular level," Esquire reports, without all of the sweat and movement that usually comes with it. This is a little hard to imagine, until you learn about two mice named Lance Armstrong Mouse and Couch Potato Mouse.

The exercise pill hasn't been approved for human use yet, but it appears to have had staggering effects on the mouse trials run at the Salk Institute, according to The New Yorker contributor Nicola Twilley, who had the opportunity to meet the mice involved in the trial herself. She wrote about the experience,

Couch Potato Mouse had been raised to serve as a proxy for the average American. Its daily exercise was limited to an occasional waddle toward a bowl brimming with pellets of laboratory standard “Western Diet,” which consists almost entirely of fat and sugar and is said to taste like cookie dough.
Lance Armstrong Mouse had been raised under exactly the same conditions, yet, despite its poor diet and lack of exercise, it was lean and taut, its eyes and coat shiny as it snuffled around its cage.

The only difference between the two mice? Lance Armstrong Mouse takes a daily dose of 516, while Couch Potato Mouse does not.

Ideally, Evans told The Washington Post, the exercise pill could eventually be used as a drug to help those with muscular dystrophy, including Parkinson's and Huntington's Disease.

Of course, a miracle exercise drug could pose huge risks for exploitation, both from regular people and athletes alike. But to Ali Tavassoli, a professor of chemical biology at the University of Southampton in England, who is working on a similar drug that aims to help diabetics metabolize sugar, it doesn't matter if some people exploit it. He told The Washington Post,

Unfortunately, as with all other pharmaceuticals, there is no way to prevent abuse, but the potential benefit to millions of people suffering from disease outweighs any concern about abuse by athletes.

While researchers have stressed that any form of the exercise pill is not currently safe for human consumption, Nicola Twilley of The New Yorker spoke to one man who claims to have taken the pill.

It remains unclear how, exactly, this man — who is only identified by the online handle, "Iron Julius" — got his hands on the pill, though The New Yorker points out that, once a drug like this is established, "chemical-supply laboratories are free to synthesize it for sale, 'for research purposes only.'"

Iron Julius told Twilley he is a firefighter who apparently uses the pill for both recreational and professional purposes, noting "stamina at times is very important" in his job. Speaking on the effects he claimed to have experienced with the 516 pill, he explained how it changed his approach to a 5K race he ran with his wife:

I was just planning to walk a good bit. But I actually ran with her the entire time. It blew my mind how good I felt.

The potential for exercise pills to revolutionize the way we approach fitness is unprecedented, but it's important to remember who these pills are actually being created for. If you and your body have the ability to work out, these researchers are saying you should absolutely stick to that. So, no, please don't go and cancel your cycling class just because you heard about a fancy new exercise pill.