An Exercise Pill? What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

by Chris Centeno, MD /

exercise pill

This past week an arcane paper about how exercise regulates the biochemistry of muscle was published, sparking news outlets to claim that scientists were on the verge of creating an “exercise pill”! This would mean that we could all just pop a pill and skip the gym! What could possibly go wrong?

First, how in the world could you ever go from an obscure paper with the title, “Global Phosphoproteomic Analysis of Human Skeletal Muscle Reveals a Network of Exercise-Regulated Kinases and AMPK Substrates” to an exercise pill? What you may not realize is that much of the science news you read everyday is heavily “sold” by university PR departments to news outlets. As  result, as I’ve blogged before, many of the “firsts” you read in the news (as in, first lab to create X) aren’t really firsts, but hyped by over zealous public relations departments at that university. Science writers, overwhelmed with producing content for our 24-7-365 news content machine have little time to check out the veracity of the claim on the press release.

This new paper looked at what happened at the biochemical level after a bout of exercise. There were more than 1,000 changes on more than 500 proteins as a result of physical activity. The process was so complex that the authors had to use machine learning just to figure out what was happening and why. Perhaps the most interesting thing was that despite the hype form the university PR department, one news outlet actually found out that the authors were planning on using this blueprint of the exercise induced protein changes to create an exercise pill! Per one of the authors, “We’ve created an exercise blueprint that lays the foundation for future treatments, and the end goal is to mimic the effects of exercise…(in a pill)” Wow!

The upshot? What could possibly go wrong trying to recreate exactly more than 1,000 changes on more than 500 proteins? The scientific hubris here is a bit disturbing. While I certainly get that we need this knowledge to help further our understanding of the effects of exercise and a pill like this may help certain infirmed elderly patients, the big market here is obviously the average American couch potato. If the past is prologue, with several very simple diets pills now yanked from the market for killing unsuspecting dieters, what could possibly go wrong with this hair brain plan? In other words, get off your butt and hit the gym!

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Chris Centeno, MD

Regenexx Founder

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications.
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