The exercise pill, are we ready for it?

urtemedisinEvery once in a while we here about this magic medicine. What about a drug to make your muscles stronger, your heart healthier, power-up metabolism, reduce body weight, improve blood flow in your brain and many other benefits? Wouldn’t that be great?

Although many people would say yes, we commonly meet many that are against that idea for a number of reasons. For example, it’s well known that physical activity levels have decreased dramatically in the past 100 years in almost all countries, so it’s been thought that a drug to ”copy” exercise would be just one more reason NOT to go out for a workout. And how about elite sports? Doping is an increasing problem in the field, so another pill to enhance performance could lead to more abuse of such substances. Or perhaps more important: if exercising promotes so many benefits for health, would the world really need an expensive drug that does (part of) the same thing?

BiancoFor these reasons, many people believe that an exercise pill would do more harm than good. In the scientific world, there are scholars with very strong opinions against the pursuit of such a drug. Although we understand those concerns and acknowledge that contrasting opinions are important for the advancement of knowledge, there is also another perspective to this issue. It is true that exercise itself brings almost all the benefits you want, so just get up from the coach and start moving, right? It seems obvious for most of us, but have you thought that many people don’t have that option?

Read also: Exercise counselling – is it worth the effort?

Paralyzed patients, the critically ill, patients in intensive care, people recovering from accidents, elderly folk that just experienced bone fractures and patients prescribed bed rest to recover from major surgery. These patients can certainly develop many of the health problems associated with low physical activity such as heart disease, metabolic disorders, muscle atrophy and many other conditions, but they can’t choose if they exercise or not. For these health conditions, an exercise pill wouldn’t be such a bad idea, right? Importantly, some important discoveries have been made in this regard. These are examples:

  • It has been shown that exercise makes the body produce a protein called ”irisin”. This protein was injected into sedentary diabetic mice, and made them lose weight and improve their diabetic status within a few weeks. That said, it is now expected that this protein will help, for example, extremely obese people (unable to stand) to lose weight, and improve their fitness so that they can start exercising after some time.
  • Another molecule, called IGF1, is very important for good functioning of the muscles. Strength training (such as weight lifting) increases the levels of IGF1 and makes muscles bigger and stronger. Scientists developed a therapy to increase IGF1 in small rodents, and observed that these mice get much stronger even without any training. With this in mind, it is likely that this treatment will benefit patients with severe muscle dystrophy, who have been extremely weak for decades and sometimes depend on a wheelchair to move around. A recent study also showed that a different protein (METRNL) does a similar job.
  • Another study showed that swimming exercise blocks the expression of the gene CEBP1beta, which is the opposite effect of cardiac disease. Interestingly, animals that don’t have this gene are protected against heart problems. We also know that lying down on a bed for six weeks reduces cardiorespiratory capacity equivalent to 40 years of aging. That said, patients that undergo major surgery struggle for many months to get fit again, so if a drug could block the gene CEBP1beta, it could benefit these patients immensely.
  • Little mice that carry a lot of the PEPCK protein in their muscles, can run for four hours in a treadmill, while the normal mice perform for only 20 minutes. These mighty mice also live longer and have reduced body weight, even though they eat TWICE AS MUCH as normal mice. Can you imagine how good it could be to ”give” this protein to people that really don’t have enough energy to finish a workout?

Read also: Introducing Irisin: the exercise hormone

Of course there is still a lot to be done before these findings become drugs for us humans. For this and many other reasons, we at CERG have recently embraced the challenge to capture the effects of exercise at the molecular level. When we do so, we might be able recreate many of the benefits of exercise and hopefully benefit those patients that can’t really train. Sure, a few athletes will abuse such a drug, but should we really care about that if we have the opportunity to improve health of so many others? And furthermore, what about patients that are still engaged in training and don’t improve that much? Wouldn’t it be great to give them a little boost to increase their motivation? I think so…

And what about you, what do you think about an exercise pill? Is it the hero or the villain? Give your opinion with a comment below, maybe you can also tell us what YOU WOULD LIKE us to search for! 🙂

Jose Bianco Moreira, Postdoctor at CERG

3 thoughts on “The exercise pill, are we ready for it?

  1. Scientific initiatives that will benefit millions of people really have to let participants , universities, nations, etc very proud. The ” exercise pill ” will surely be in the heroes group.
    Congratulations to CERG , the NTNU and Norway for it all.
    I´m also very proud for a special reason : my oldest son be part of this team.
    Congratulations my son and God continues enlightening you on this path of doing good through science.

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