This Exercise Pill Could Deliver All the Benefits of Working out—without All the Effort

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Halfpoint/fizkes/ShutterstockEveryone knows regular exercise is essential, but not everyone can pull that off. For people with painful joints or limiting disabilities, being able to hit the gym, the jogging track, or even a home treadmill may be out of the question. But thanks to Salk Institute scientists, there may be a loophole—a pill that delivers all of exercise’s benefits, no workouts necessary.

A new study, published in Cell Metabolism, builds on earlier work revealing that running triggers a specific gene pathway known as PPARD. The Salk Institute scientists chemically activated PPARD in sedentary mice, and discovered they could bring about many of the beneficial effects of exercise in those mice—including increased fat burning and stamina—without a lick of activity. The mice got the drug over a period of eight weeks, and by the end, they could run on a treadmill for 70 percent longer (about 100 more minutes) than sedentary mice who didn’t get the drug, the researchers discovered.

“We previously activated the pathway in mice through genetic engineering,” explained senior author Ronald Evans, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, “and discovered that doing so turned the animals into long-distance runners, and they gained many of the health benefits of exercise such as better responsiveness to insulin and greater resistance to weight gain, and had many other markers of good health.” However, the mice still had to be active to gain all the benefits. In the new study, the mice got a higher dose of a chemical compound (called GW1516) that activates PPARD, and they got the compound for twice as long.

“Exercise activates PPARD, but we’re showing that you can do the same thing without mechanical training. It means you can improve endurance to the equivalent level as someone in training, without all of the physical effort,” says Weiwei Fan, a Salk research associate and the paper’s first author, in a press release from Science Daily.

“The drug will provide the most benefit for people who are physically unable to exercise due to other health conditions, like having COPD, being elderly, or wheelchair-bound,” said Michael Downes, a Salk senior scientist and co-senior author of the paper. “We realize athletes may want to take this drug for a competitive advantage, but it’s really meant for people who simply don’t have the option of exercising.” Human testing is next, which means a pill for the people who need it is still a few years away. In the meantime, you can find plenty of exercise loopholes if you know where to look.

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