The Future of Exercise May Come Via a Small Workout Pill
A new field of research is working on ways to create a workout pill that offers most of the benefits of exercise without actually exercising.
One day in the not-too-distant future, if you are hoping to get in a little exercise but don’t have time to hit the gym, you may be able to relax and take a pill. Then while you are resting, or even outright sleeping, your body will take care of the rest and give you the equivalent of a decent workout.
It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, or maybe a late-night infomercial hosted by someone promising the impossible, but there is a very real possibility that one day soon we may have the option to exercise in pill form.
The research is actually coming from several different, competing groups, but they all share a similar end goal. By taking a drug of some form, the subject can essentially trick their bodies into recreating the conditions of a workout. Think of it like a biohack, or even gaming the system of your body. The current aim of the research is to help people that cannot otherwise workout on their own for medical reasons, but it’s easy to imagine the commercial appeal.
One of the groups working in this field of research is the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. The researchers there have been working along these lines since 2007, using a chemical compound known as 516. The research began by using previously established studies that identified the genetic mechanisms that told muscles to burn fat, rather than carbohydrates. Basically, it identifies and mimics the process that elite athletes strive for through hours of training.
Another study in the same field using different methods comes from the University of South Hampton in England, which is researching a drug that researchers there discovered known as Compound 14. The compound tricks the subject’s cells into thinking they are out of energy, prompting them to metabolize sugar instead, which in turn produces more energy.
Others – like a team at Harvard – are also working on similar research but are currently keeping it quite.
The main goal of this avenue of research is to help people suffering from diseases, disorders, or situations where they are unable to exercise. The current target for 516 is children that suffer from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a disorder that hits kids and prevents them from exercising. Most sufferers die of muscle wasting at around 15 or 16. The drug could potentially help with several other medical conditions as well, but the Duchenne sufferers are the current target group.
With Compound 14, the drug has the potential to help combat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease, and help people confined to a wheelchair. Presumably, it would also have the potential to help anyone that is bedridden and at risk of muscular atrophy.
The benefits of Compound 14 also extend to medical issues where breaking down sugar can be a benefit, including certain types of kidney damage, high blood sugar, hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. There’s even the potential of increasing glucose tolerance.
These drugs are still in the early stages and are currently working their way through the trial process. They have yet to reach human testing and there’s no clear timetable for when they will reach that. They also still need to seek FDA approval.
Even so, the World Anti-Doping Agency is already aware of 516 and considers it a banned substance, and it will likely keep a close eye on these types of drugs. Along with helping the sick, they could conceivably help already healthy athletes become stronger and faster, as it would essentially double their exercise.
The researchers are not currently looking at the drugs as a means to circumvent exercise, but it’s hard to imagine that if a pill hits the market capable of letting people get in a full workout while on the couch or asleep, it won’t instantly have people lusting after it. Assuming it is deemed safe for human consumption, drugs like these could instantly create a new billion dollar cottage industry.
These drugs are still years away from practical use, but it’s hard to not see the potential – for better and worse.