What if you could reap the benefits of a good workout without leaving the couch? Would you do it?
Believe it or not, this might soon be a very legit premise, as researchers come closer and closer to developing what we might call ‘exercise in a pill.’
It all starts with a gene called PPAR delta (PPARD), which plays a key role in our metabolic response to exercise—a.k.a. how much energy we use and whether that energy comes from carbohydrates or fat. It’s activated when we work out, signaling muscles to shift into fat-burning mode and improving the body’s insulin sensitivity (a.k.a. blood sugar regulation), according to research out of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
The theory is, when the body burns carbs for fuel, it ‘hits a wall’ when available sugar drops below a certain level. So, by burning fat for fuel instead, the body can conserve sugar for the brain, and can perform for longer before bonking. Not only does this mean better performance, but it also makes maintaining a healthy body weight easier.
So, what’s this about a pill? There is now a drug that can activate that PPARD gene. A new study published in Cell Metabolism found that after eight weeks on a high dose of this drug, couch potato mice were able to run for about 100 minutes longer than mice that didn’t take the drug. (Imagine being able to go further than you’ve ever run before without training!) Because the PPARD gene had been regularly activated in these mice, their bodies were able to run for longer, as well as better able to burn fat instead of carbs. Yep, they were also resistant to weight gain and had better insulin responses than the non-drugged mice.
Sounds great, right? There’s a catch, of course: While the drug boosted the metabolic benefits of exercise and increased endurance, it had no effect on some of the other payoffs of a good sweat—like changes within the muscles that lead to increased muscle mass, explains a Salk University press release. So while a PPARD-activating drug could potentially keep you from burning out on a long run or bike ride, it’s not going to help you increase lean mass while you veg on the couch.
And let’s not forget about all of the other wonderful benefits of working out, like stress relief, or the instant mood boost that comes with a good endorphin rush. Research (like this study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness) has also shown that exercise helps boost self-esteem. Then, too, there are the cardiovascular benefits of physical activity, like healthy blood pressure and cholesterol support. And perhaps most importantly, what would our lives be without the fantasy-fulfillment of a good gym crush?
On the flip side, an ‘exercise pill’ could be a valuable game-changer for people with certain conditions, like type 2 diabetes or obesity, who could benefit from extra fat-burning and blood sugar support, suggest the researchers. It could also help bolster the fitness of patients kept sedentary before or after surgery, they say.
According to the Salk Institute, pharmaceutical companies have expressed interest in developing human clinical trials—so those mice may not be the only ones popping exercise pills for long.