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Workout in a Pill?

Posted By Worker Bee On August 30, 2008 @ 6:26 am In Aging,Fitness,Health,Research Analysis | 7 Comments

As you probably already know, we here at MDA are all about making informed decisions that produce the best results with a minimal amount of effort. For example, what’s the point in running yourself to death when you can achieve better results with a short and intense workout session? In this sense we are all for shortcuts. We love ‘em. Why take the long, circuitous path from A to B when you can get there by walking (or sprinting!) a straight line? But we normally discount the effectiveness of pharmaceutical shortcuts. Why? Shortcuts that involve pills usually never work – especially in achieving long term health or fitness goals. Pharma attempts at wellness almost always have a tough time seeing the forest for the trees. Gene expression is much more nuanced enterprise than a pill can account for. In other words, when it comes to popping a pill it is difficult to know what is going on behind the curtain. So when we read about a new pill being developed [7] that chemically mimics the effects of exercise in lab mice, you can imagine how skeptical we were.

A team of scientists from the Salk Institute’s Gene Expression Laboratory has created a pill that they promise to be the shortest, simplest route to fitness. Untrained, sedentary mice were given the drug for four weeks and saw huge gains in endurance and weight loss. Compared to untrained, sedentary mice not given the drug, the pill poppers ran 44 percent longer on a treadmill – almost as if they had been exercising all their lives. Even for avowed adherents to the Primal Blueprint like us, a quick-fix exercise pill is mighty tempting. But wouldn’t that go against our commitment to better living through lifestyle changes, as opposed to chemistry?

Looking at our philosophy more in depth, you’ll realize that we’re not against the healing power of modern medicine [8] if it addresses health problems that cannot be solved by lifestyle changes. Also, we’re not skeptical of pills simply because they are unnatural and man-made; we follow the Primal Blueprint because it appears to be the most effective way to achieve lasting health, fitness, and longevity. It’s more a matter of utility than dogma. The Primal Blueprint [9] works, so we follow it. Pretty simple, right? All skepticism aside, if this exercise pill were to actually deliver on its promises without ill effects, we’d be all over it like mice on cheese (sorry about that).

We have to admit that the potential for such a drug to exist raises many questions. If modern science created a pill that provided all the benefits of living Primally, would you take it? If you could eat junk food and never work out, but still live a long and healthy life, would you? When it comes to longevity, when does the end trump the means? Every time?

Whatever your answers to these thought experiments are you have some waiting to do before reality catches up to the imaginary. As it stands, the pill appears to just be a boon for potential rodent marathon runners. The mice showed definite improvement in slow-twitch muscle fibers (oh boy, our favorite!), but there was no mention of strength or speed increases (of far more interest to Grok and his ilk). Of course, a mouse’s raw power and maximum foot speed probably aren’t the easiest things to test. And seeing as the traditional metric of fitness is still aerobic endurance, it’s safe to assume the scientists at Salk Institute weren’t overly concerned with recording anaerobic performance.

We’re willing to give the exercise pill a chance in theory, but until they teach mice to do Tabatta burpees and clean-and-jerks and measure the results (cats worldwide hope they’re inconclusive), or they start testing on humans, we’ll hold strong to our skepticism of Big Pharma and wait to see how things pan out. In the meantime it is good fodder for philosophical questions about what it means to live a healthy life. Hit us up with your thoughts!

Rick Eh? [10] Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

More of the Worker Bees’ Weekly Bites

Are New Prescription Drugs Safe?

Deconstructing Healthcare: A Modest Proposal


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