A magic pill that keeps you fit without enduring the pains of hitting the gym sounds like the start of a comically terrible infomercial. But scientists are working to develop so-called "exercise pills" and they're making some progress, according to a study published in the journal Cell Metabolism.
The research is still in very preliminary stages so you may not want to pack away your gym clothes just yet, but the study authors say their findings suggest that bottling at least some of the benefits of exercise could one day be a reality.
Researchers from the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre in Australia looked human skeletal muscle biopsies from four untrained, healthy men after 10 minutes of high intensity exercise. Through a careful analysis, they identified over 1,000 different molecular changes in the muscles triggered by intense physical activity.
"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," study author Dr. Nolan Hoffman of the Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Science said in a statement.
"The idea is, the more we understand about how exercise changes our muscle cells, the better we can then imitate it with medicine," CBS News medical contributor Dr. Holly Phillips explained.
However, there are some important caveats. The main goal of the pill is to improve muscle strength and tone, which is, of course, just one of the many benefits of exercise.
"Exercise has such broad effects on our body," Phillips said. "We know psychologically, anti-inflammatory. It affects our hearts and lungs, the entire system, not just the muscles cells themselves."
In other words, the pill wouldn't be a true replacement for exercise.
Still, if it came to fruition, the pill could have some significant health benefits for some, especially for people who can't exercise, including stroke victims, people with spinal cord injuries and those who are confined to a wheelchair. "For them, maintaining muscle tone can be really life saving, but they're not able to physically exercise. So they would be the first target and the first group to really benefit from this pill," Phillips said.
In another paper published this month in the journal Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, researchers reviewed several laboratories developing exercise pills that are currently being tested in animals.
"We are at the early stages of this exciting new field," study author Ismail Laher, of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said in a statement. "Further development of exercise pills that act in combination may be more effective than single compounds. We just don't know anything about their long-term use in humans yet."