RunningAn “exercise pill” may sound like science fiction, or like yet another diet fad that ultimately does nothing. However, science is seeking out a solution in earnest. The chemical effects of exercise are well documented in improving conditions from memory to stress management to age-related brain deterioration. For those who are unable to run long distance, life weights, or hold their body weight due to age or limited movement ability, there is no way to get the chemical and cerebral benefits of exercise. This is exactly the problem that researchers are looking to fix.

University of Sydney partnered up with the University of Copenhagen to take tissue samples from four men who had just exerted a lot of energy on a bicycle for 10 minutes. The results showed over a thousand different molecular changes in the muscle tissue taken immediately after exertion compare with muscle tissue taken from those same men before the activity began.

“We’ve created an exercise blueprint that lays the foundation for future treatments, and the end goal is to mimic the effects of exercise,” said Dr. Nolan Hoffman, one of the authors of the study. “It’s long been thought that there were many signals elicited by exercise, but we were the first to create this map and we now know the complexity.”

But these two Universities aren’t the only ones working on this.

The National Institute of Health has organised a giant clinical study, spanning many different clinical centres, to attempt to decipher an incredible amount of detailed data a a blueprint for how exercise changes our genes, the way we use and absorb protein, epigenetics in muscles and fatty tissue, and metabolism. “Identification of the mechanisms that underlie the link between physical activity and improved health holds extraordinary promise for discovery of novel therapeutic targets and development of personalised exercise medicine,” wrote the participating researchers in a report in Cell Metabolism.

All of this is being made possible by “big data”, a term used to describe researchers and computer programmes built to decipher massive amounts of data to find correlations that could go unseen by the human eye.  With the help of big data, a team from Harvard has announced a drug that converts white fat (the kind that isn’t beneficial and sticks around) to brown fat (the kind that is metabolically active), which in essence converts all your fat storage cells into fat burning machines.

All of this research is a long way from being our day-to-day reality. “We are at the early stages of this exciting new field,” said Dr. Ismail Laher. a scientist at the University of British Columbia who recently published a think piece on the future of exercise pills.

On the other side of the coin, the British Medical Journal recently published a study showing that the efficacy of exercise is often as good a medicine in preventing mortality as medication in some situations. In these tests, regular physical activity rivalled some heart drugs and outperformed stroke medicine in preventing death. In England, reports the BBC, there were an average of 17.7 prescriptions for every person in England in 2010, compared with 11.2 in 2000. “These trials looked at managing conditions such as existing heart disease, stroke rehabilitation, heart failure and pre-diabetes. When they studied the data as a whole, they found exercise and drugs were comparable in terms of death rates. But there were two exceptions: Drugs called diuretics were the clear winner for heart failure patients, while exercise was best for stroke patients in terms of life expectancy.”


So while the potential for an exercise pill may be in your future, if you can it’s probably for the best if you just go out for a brisk walk on your own.