Can I Get a Pill for That?

Can I Get a Pill for That?


Several people sent me an article from the New Yorker last week that described a possible pharmaceutical alternative to attain the benefits of exercise without actually exercising…

Are they trying to tell me something?

Reading the article reminded me of taking my elderly grandfather to a doctor’s appointment for a follow up after his recovery from a hairline fracture in his hip.  He was still having trouble walking, pain when getting up and down from his chair, and everything felt hard in general.  The doctor asked him if he was doing his physical therapy exercises, such as walking up and down the hallway of their condo…

“What?!?!  No!  Don’t you have a pill for that?”

At the time, the answer was no.  But that might change in the near future.

Researchers have been working on several different compounds that each mimic the effects of exercise in different ways.  One compound, GW 50516, works on a gene called PPAR-delta that sends a signal to burn more fat.  It’s incredibly effective in mice.  Even eating a horrible diet and getting little to no activity, mice taking 516 are able to stay lean and control their cholesterol levels.  Another drug, compound 14, causes obese sedentary mice on a high fat diet with no exercise to lose weight and normalize blood sugar levels in just one week.  Irisin, a hormone, can turn regular white fat into metabolism boosting brown fat, and still other chemicals can actually change muscle fiber type from carb burning fast twitch to fat incinerating slow twitch.

In mice.  In petri dishes. In the lab.

When compound 516 was given to mice in large doses for two years, many of them developed cancer.  Everywhere.  Skin, GI tract, reproductive organs, even their tongues.  But they are working on that problem.  And a few other issues.  Chances are there will be some sort of exercise pill on the market in the next ten years.

But what will it do?  All of these chemicals were found by chance.  When scientists look at all of the compounds in the body that are released by just a single bout of exercise the number is in the thousands and we don’t have any idea of the effects of the majority of these compounds.  And what about long term exercise?

This is not to say that I think an exercise pill is a bad idea.  There are lots of really interesting and totally legitimate applications for something like that.  For example, my grandfather.  He was frail.  It really was very difficult and uncomfortable for him to move around.  A short term exercise pill prescription may have gotten him over the hump.  Or someone recovering from surgery.  A pregnant woman on bed rest.

Notice I have not mentioned “ I would really rather sit on the sofa and watch Game of Thrones” as a legitimate application.

And that brings me to my argument against replacing exercise with a pill for the general population.

One of the biggest benefits of exercise for me has not been physical, but psychological.  When you workout, if it’s going to be effective at causing changes in your body, it’s going to be uncomfortable.  And that’s ok.  It’s temporary.  You can be uncomfortable for a short time, and then it’s over.  You got through it.  Exercising regularly (and making yourself uncomfortable regularly) allows you to practice and build resilience.  It is an attribute that is truly crucial for psychological wellbeing, and one that I don’t think gets enough attention.  The difference between people who are happy and people who are miserable is very rarely correlated with the person’s actual situation. Instead, people who are resilient are able to bounce back from even horrific circumstances, while people with less resilience are beaten down by the smallest disappointment.

I used to be a delicate flower.  Exercise is what made me a sturdy mule.  Yes, I would much rather be a mule.  And I don’t think you can get that from a pill.


Questions? Comments? I’d love to hear from you!

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