The promises and limitations of stuffing physical activity into a capsule.
It sounds too good to be true and for now, it is. But what if some of the benefits of exercise could be packed into a pill? Scientists are beginning to develop “exercise pills” that show some potential, according to two new papers—a review published in the journal Trends in Pharmacological Sciences and another small study published in the journal Cell Metabolism.
“Everyone’s looking for a pill to replace exercise, but we’re just not there yet,” says the first study’s co-author Ismail Laher, professor in the department of anesthesiology, pharmacology and therapeutics at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “It’s not going to make a couch potato into Arnold Schwarzenegger."
So-called “exercise pills” are made from compounds that have been shown—mostly in studies done in animals—to mimic one or more of the effects of exercise, like developing new blood vessels, forming new mitochondria in cells or increasing the body’s capacity for exercise. “They’ll let you get muscles that are stronger and faster and reach your exercise goals much quicker,” Laher says.
But no single pill can reproduce every benefit exercise has on the body. Popping an exercise pill won’t flood you with endorphins, for instance, while also making your bones stronger. speeding up the blood flow through your arteries and making your heart beat faster, Laher says. “It’s a very small slice of the pie.”
What exercise pills can do is largely localized to muscles, the new review finds. “You’re increasing efficiency of ATP, the currency by which every cell goes about its daily life,” Laher says.