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Science is serious about developing an 'exercise pill'

It's not just for couch potatoes...a pill to at least supplement your workout may arrive one day, and some researchers think they've got a way to make that happen.

Could the medicine ball one day be replaced by medicine? Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services

Late last week, as we were all settling in for another delightfully sedentary weekend, the global science community launched a preemptive strike on the associated couch potato guilt by dropping not one, but two new papers on the potential awesomeness of an exercise pill.

Naturally, I was too busy just relaxing to get to them until this week, but when I finally mustered the strength, I found that they don't exactly paint a picture of a utopian future where we all pop pills instead of getting sweaty at the gym...but they don't totally rule out the possibility either.

"It is unrealistic to expect that exercise pills will fully be able to substitute for physical exercise -- at least not in the immediate future," Ismail Laher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver said in a release. Laher is co-author of a review of current efforts to develop an exercise pill. The review was published Friday in Trends in Pharmacological Sciences.

As with so much in life and science, be it powdered alcohol or getting romantic with AI, it often seems that there's no substitute for the real thing, but it's also a truism that the real thing is often beyond our grasp.

"Although nothing can fully substitute for physical exercise, candidate exercise pills that have emerged in recent years may be an attractive alternative for people who are unable to undertake regular exercise because of medical conditions such as obesity, amputations, spinal injuries, metabolic diseases, and musculoskeletal or cardiovascular conditions," the paper reads.

"For example, a pill for people with spinal cord injury could be very appealing given the difficulties that these individuals face in exercising due to paralysis -- in such patients, a large number of detrimental changes occur in cardiovascular and skeletal muscle function," explains Laher.

Most of the current work on developing an exercise pill is in the experimental phases right now, with tests being done on lab animals, but one such drug has shown up on the black market as a purported performance enhancer for athletes. The drug candidate GW501516 was actually abandoned in 2006 after it caused cancer in test animals, but it continued to be sold on the black market, leading the World Anti-Doping Agency to develop a test for the drug and ban it.

Laher cautions that more research is still needed to understand the side effects, optimal dosages and potential for misuse of an exercise pill.

Fortunately, that kind of research is happening at places like the University of Sydney, where some very generous experiment subjects agreed to do 10 minutes of high-intensity exercise followed by the worst cool-down regimen I've ever heard of -- having a bit of their recently worked skeletal muscle biopsied so that scientists could study the immediate impact of the workout on the cells in an attempt to basically reverse engineer the effects of exercise.

"While scientists have long suspected that exercise causes a complicated series of changes to human muscle, this is the first time we have been able to map exactly what happens," Dr. Nolan Hoffman said in a release. Hoffman is co-author of a paper on the results that was published Friday in the journal Cell Metabolism. "This is a major breakthrough, as it allows scientists to use this information to design a drug that mimics the true beneficial changes caused by exercise."

The key to a truly successful exercise pill, according to Hoffman's team, might be to target not just individual molecules as many traditional drugs do, but rather to go after multiple molecules or even pathways, which are described as a combination of molecules working together. They say their research provides the road map to figure out how to do this.

Meanwhile, don't cancel that gym membership just yet, but don't overdo it either, as the World Anti-Doping Agency has yet to get around to acknowledging the toxicity of too much exercise.