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Researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute have pinpointed two compounds that can turn white fat (aka the "bad" kind) into brown fat (aka the "good" kind that burn excess energy). But will it replace the treadmill?

Ellen Seidman
December 10, 2014

You couldn't resist clicking on this, right? That's exactly how I felt when I read that scientists are working on an obesity pill. It's something most of us have fantasized about, because let's face it, trying to keep up with healthy eating and regular exercise sometimes isn't always f-u-n. (Understatement alert.)

Researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute are in the early stages of the process, as they announced in an article in the journal Natural Cell Biology. Currently, they've created a system to screen for compounds that can turn white fat (aka the "bad" kind) into brown fat (aka the "good" kind that burns excess energy), and have pinpointed two compounds that can do the trick. The goal is to produce an effective, safe medication, and a whole lot of other research and clinical trials will be needed.

So here's what burst my bubble: The fact that researchers are billing this as "the first step toward a pill that can replace the treadmill."

Really? I mean, if you tell me that someday a pill might burn off the chocolate bar I got from the office vending machine or the cheeseburger I downed at Girls' Night Out, I'd buy that (figuratively and literally). It kind of gives an exciting new meaning to "morning-after pill." But skipping exercise? Nuh-uh. As Mayo Clinic physician and researcher Michael Joyner, MD, recently told Health.com, "The effects of exercise are so widespread—it builds muscle, helps with glucose and fat metabolism, protects against aging blood vessels, the list goes on—there's no way one pill can address all of this."

Hyping a pill as a workout replacement is a public disservice. Society has come a long way toward encouraging people of all ages to regularly exercise but still, data from the Centers for Disease Control finds that an astounding 80% of American adults don't get the recommended exercise they need weekly (2.5 hours of moderate intensity aerobic exercise or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous intensity activity, or a combo of both). Meanwhile, research published in the Lancet linked physical inactivity to 5.3 million deaths worldwide per year.

We do not want to entice people to avoid physical activity—and I say this as someone who would be plenty tempted to bail on a workout and sit around binging on Netflix. The most responsible way to ultimately tout this sort of pill isn't as a replacement for exercise or good eating habits but as a weight loss aid.

And, yeah: I hope insurance covers it.

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