Health and the No-Pain Gain: Have Scientists Found a “Fitness Pill”?

By Martin Brown

hand weights and white pills For many, it’s far too good to be true, and for others it’s the realization of a long awaited dream: Could scientists be on the brink of discovering a fitness pill?
Call it an athlete in a bottle, and it might be closer than any of us would think.
In recent years, researchers have found various drug combinations that dramatically raise endurance levels in mice. But most remarkably, in the past year scientists have discovered drugs that can accomplish this without these mice doing any exercise at all.
Of course, as most of us know, the way we humans have always built endurance is to do aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming, biking, tennis, and other heart-rate increasing activities. What effect this has on the body varies depending on the individual, but what we most commonly seek as a reward for our hard work, or play depending on our unique point of view, is that we will increase our stamina and burn fat through exercise. What this new research focuses on is a way to activate a network of genes that accomplishes this goal, regardless of whether we are active or not.
Last year, a team of scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, created a group of genetically engineered mice. In doing so, they discovered that these small creatures, affectionately known as the “marathon mice” had almost double the running endurance of regular mice.
During earlier studies in 2006, scientists found that when they gave a performance enhancing drug to normal adult mice, they developed no greater stamina than non-doped counterparts–until the researchers had the animals combine the drug with a workout routine. Then the mice taking the performance enhancing drugs had endurance levels that shot through the roof: They ran about 70% farther than trained mice, and their running times were increased by equally impressive numbers.
Researchers last year in 2007, wondered what would happen if they tricked the body into thinking it was exercising when it actually was sedentary. These “couch potato” mice got an instant boost of endurance of up to 44%–without any form of exercise training. The scientists explained that none of them had expected that you could create an exercise pill. After four weeks on the drug, however, the mice behaved as if they had exercised every day for more than a year.
These studies indicate that either exercise or the pill boosts the endurance-promoting genes in the muscles. And now that this performance pathway has been revealed, it can be manipulated. This could have significant life extending benefits for people with “sedentary” diseases such as obesity or diabetes; for that reason alone this new class of drugs is an important advancement.
As of September 2008, none of these new drugs has been tested for increasing endurance in people. But even if they do work in humans, they would only boost our ability to run faster or farther–not enhance our desire to accomplish this. As many of the researchers into this new area of study are quick to point out, the preferred approach is a balance of  diet and exercise.
A wise and true sentiment, but I can’t believe that if this drug comes to market one day it won’t be embraced enthusiastically by all those who wish to have their cake, and eat it too! Without, of course, the need to get up off the couch and burn off those extra pounds as well.

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