Inspired living

Exercise in a pill... Is it possible?

Exercise in a pill... Is it possible? We take a look at the latest science

Credit: Matthew LeJune

There are two things we know about exercise. It’s good for you in more ways than you expect and, if the contorted grimaces of pain etched on the faces of those who are dedicated to pounding the pavements and straining their honed biceps are anything to go by, we don’t like doing it.

Yet there’s mounting scientific evidence that exercise is not only beneficial for your heart and waistline but it also has the power to curb osteoporosis, overcome depression, alleviate fatigue, reduce the risk of breast, colorectal and stomach cancers, boost your memory and mental faculties, possibly prevent dementia and, most importantly, make you more adroit and nimble between the sheets. Despite all this, the floodgates of enthusiasm for getting off the couch have not opened.

Escalating diabetes and obesity statistics are a warning salvo that the adverse metabolic consequences of not exercising are potentially catastrophic.

Exercise simply doesn’t switch on the same pleasure chemicals elicited by a delectable mouthful of tiramisu. If nature intended us to be upright and active, why didn’t vigorous athletic movement become physiologically wired to feelings of ecstasy?

Biologists explain that, from an evolutionary and survival imperative, we are driven to conserve energy. Times of scarcity, which were many, necessitated that we held onto our fat stores, which meant that our DNA became hardwired to switch off fat burning. Exercise didn’t get paired with the same rapturous chemicals triggered by chocolate consumption. This explains why we don’t like to move.


Not only does exercise not generate neurochemical joy, but health experts now tell us that to cloak our bodies in its downstream benefits we need to be engaged in a combination of aerobic activity like fast walking, jogging, cycling or swimming as well as weight training and stretching for at least 150 minutes per week. You can just go for a casual stroll with your beloved four-legged creatures and do the occasional Pilates class.

The upside is you don’t have to become a triathlete or take steroids. Research tell us that moderate‐intensity joggers have lower mortality rates than sedentary people or high-intensity joggers. If you want to live longer than those who do nothing or the fanatics who go to the other extreme of wanting to qualify for the Olympics, all you have to do is indulge in the kind of regular running activity that generates a sweat.

What exercise does is make more slow-twitch muscle fibres, the kind that tire slowly and burn more fat. Exercise also spawns more mitochondria, the cellular batteries that decline in number and efficiency with ageing. The more mitochondria you have, the easier it will be to utilise fat to generate energy, but these rewards aren’t immediately evident. They take time to be actualised and the effects are subtle, so they don’t compel repetitive behaviour.

Sadly, ageing throws a further spanner in the works. Free radicals, the chemicals thought to be destructive when they accumulate in excess, interfere with the metabolic and physical rewards derived from exercise. Free radicals spiral with ageing as your antioxidant defences wane.

One way you can mitigate the effects of free radicals is to get a good night’s rest. When you sleep you make melatonin, a hormone that’s a powerful free radical neutraliser. Experts claim you might need at least 7–8 hours of sleep every night to manufacture healthy amounts of melatonin. Eating as soon as you can after sunset and going to bed early can also amplify melatonin production.

The exercise pill

The sheer numbers of those who don’t exercise tells us that evolution is trumping our commitment to looking after our bodies and, as a consequence, our minds. Escalating diabetes and obesity statistics are a resounding warning salvo that the adverse metabolic consequences of not exercising are potentially catastrophic.

Scientists are mindful of our predicament. If we could encapsulate all the hard-earned rewards from hours of toil in a pill, wouldn’t this be a spectacular contribution to our wellbeing? If you’re thinking of doing just this, you’re too late.

Back in 2007, Ron Evans, a biologist at the Salk Institute in San Diego, was busy working on a compound called GW501516. Evans fed a group of laboratory mice combinations of fat and sugar that mimicked the Western diet and then gave one half of the group GW501516. While those who did not receive this compound became overweight and slothful, those fed GW501516 were energetic and, more importantly, lean and muscular without even exercising.

Evans then administered GW501516 to mice that had access to exercise and found that after just four weeks they had increased their endurance by 75 per cent. They trimmed down and developed the much-desired slow-twitch fibres, the ones that facilitate fat burning and marathon running.

However — and here’s the caveat — after the pharmaceutical giant underwriting this research took this drug all the way to clinical trials on humans, showing that it lowered cholesterol without any troublesome side-effects, two-year long trials on mice revealed that these animals developed a host of cancers. The company then canned any further research on GW510516.

Your exercise, it seems, will have to happen off the couch.


Michael Elstein

Michael Elstein is a Fellow of the Australian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine. Anti-ageing medicine is his current passion and he is the author of Eternal Health and You Have The Power, which are available as e-books through his website.

Dr Elstein has just attained a Masters in Nutrition from RMIT university located in Melbourne. He treats those who suffer from fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders and menopausal dysfunction. He utilises diet, nutritional therapy, hormonal interventions and herbal remedies.