Exercise in a Bottle

In conjunction with Denmark’s University of Copenhagen, the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre recently announced a major scientific breakthrough – they had discovered the ability to accurately map the effects of exercise on the body. Those involved in the research purport that this could lead to the manufacture of a drug that mimics the effects of exercise. Some may see this as cutting edge and revolutionary, while others could think of it as outlandish and unnecessary. Like diet pills and other associated quick fixes before it, the question should be asked: is a potential ‘exercise pill’ a shortcut worth taking? It’s advantageous to bear in mind that at present, any form of drug does little in the way of preventing sedentary behaviour – the oft-associated cause of many health problems.

Medication could soon be used instead of exercise

Championed by fitness professionals and health organisations worldwide, particularly by the likes of the NHS, exercise is often seen as a cure to many chronic diseases and debilitating mental conditions. For example, research shows that regular exercise can reduce the risk of stress, depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Despite being part of the exploration into an exercise pill, Professor David James reinforces the benefits being active and engaging the body: “Exercise is the most powerful therapy for many human diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and neurological disorders.” This declaration does come with a caveat however. In a story published by the University of Sydney, he went on to say: “…for many people, exercise isn’t a viable treatment option. This means it is essential we find ways of developing drugs that mimic the benefits of exercise.” – The validity of this statement is likely to be an impassioned source of debate.

The Universities of Sydney and Copenhagen are so confident in their ability to produce a miracle exercise drug because their research has unearthed completely new findings. Using mass spectrometry to study protein phosphorylation, researchers analysed four healthy men who had just completed ten minutes of high intensity exercise. The males’ skeletal muscle biopsises revealed that exercise had triggered more than a thousand molecular changes in the body. What surprised researchers is that the majority of bodily changes identified had not previously been associated with exercise. Dr Nolan, from the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, sought to explain the findings in more detail: “Exercise produces an extremely complex, cascading set of responses within human muscle. It plays an essential role in controlling energy metabolism and insulin sensitivity. 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.”

An overweight woman exercising

Unlike traditional medication which only targets individual molecules, this new drug could potentially target multiple molecules and even pathways (a series of molecular actions that lead to a change in a given cell). These pathways then have the ability to trigger the assembly of new molecules, for example protein, an essential building block for body tissue. While still very much in the theoretical stage, it’s hoped that the drug could mimic the effects of running and swimming, as well as being used therapeutically or in the rehabilitation of injuries. The latter could be groundbreaking, especially for those who are physically incapable of exercising. However, how would the general public react to this drug being on the market?

We are currently in the grips of epidemic levels of sedentary behaviour across a varying age demographic. At the same time, chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes are becoming more and more commonplace. While an exercise drug may help to mitigate some of the effects of a poor lifestyle, it will not be able to affect someone psychologically. If a person is predisposed to avoid exercise and eat poorly, weight gain and subsequent related conditions almost become inevitable. The importance of a proper diet and correct nutrition has long been heralded as solution for chronic diseases such as obesity and the current mode of thinking is that exercise can almost have no bearing on a person overcoming obesity.

Nutrition fact sheet and a tape measure

Ultimately, an exercise pill may have an array of applications, but it is perhaps not the correction solution for sedentary behaviour, poor diet and resulting chronic diseases.

Full-time health and fitness tutor and exercise specialist, Martyn Anderton, weighed in with his thoughts on a possible ‘exercise pill’. He’s been studying the human body and physiology since 2004 and his skills include motivation and behaviour change, and exercise and nutrition prescription. Among his favourite topics are the endocrine system and bioenergetics. Given his background and interest, his views are understandable:

As soon as we put something into a pill, there is a need for a quick change to occur, leading to a reduction in effort but an increase in expectation. A lifestyle of increased results for no effort could become an epidemic that future generations would suffer the consequences of. The formula for behaviour change and correct education not only promotes healthy lifestyles for future generations but millions of pounds can be saved on the development of medications. The current epidemics in health related diseases are largely born from lack of exercise and accessibility to poor nutritional products, not the lack of a tablet solution. Exercise and correct nutrition still remains the cheapest, most effective and widely accessible option available for everyone.

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