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This Pill Could Have the Same Benefits as Exercise

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist and writer specializing in sexual and reproductive health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham ...

What if you could take a pill instead of going to the gym?

You may want to sit down for this: scientists are in the midst of developing a pill that could have some of the benefits of exercise, potentially boosting athletic endurance by 70 percent.

No, this isn’t just for people who hate going to the gym. It’s primarily for those with limited mobility, like the elderly, obese or disabled, who may not be able to build strength and endurance through traditional forms of exercise.

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Scientists at the Salk Institute have discovered how to fully activate a gene pathway through a chemical compound that mimics the benefits of exercise, including increased fat-burning and stamina. So far, this research has only been done on mice, but it looks promising.

In addition to those with limited mobility, the breakthrough may also help people with heart conditions, pulmonary disease, Type 2 diabetes and other health conditions that would benefit from increasing endurance through medication.

"It's well known that people can improve their aerobic endurance through training," senior author Ronald Evans, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and holder of Salk's March of Dimes Chair in Molecular and Developmental Biology said in a press release. "The question for us was: how does endurance work? And if we really understand the science, can we replace training with a drug?"

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Here’s how the drug works: We know that endurance means that we’re able to do an aerobic activity over a prolonged period of time. We also know that’s a good thing because as people become more physically fit, their muscles shift from burning carbohydrates to burning fat. Up until now, researchers assumed that endurance is a function of the body’s increasing ability to burn fat, but weren’t entirely sure why this was the case.

The Salk Institute team found that a chemical compound was able to act similarly to a gene that allowed the mice to run long distances and be resistant to weight gain and tested it on other mice.

Turns out, it worked. The mice given the drug could run around 70 percent longer than those in the control group.

Essentially, the drug could make the body burn fat faster while at the same time burning sugar more slowly. The upshot is that, on the drug, the drop in blood sugar level that is responsible for the feeling of hitting the wall happens much later than normal. Muscles can burn either sugar or fat, but the brain prefers sugar — this is why runners who "hit the wall" experience both physical and mental fatigue when they use up their supply of glucose.

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So far, the trials on this drug have only been conducted on mice, but the Salk Institute’s press release said that pharmaceutical companies are interested in using the research to develop clinical trials for humans with the goal being therapeutic applications for people who are obese and/or have Type 2 diabetes.

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