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‘Exercise Without Workout’ Pill Being Tested

  • Jessica Berman

FILE - Gym members use as treadmill to warm up for a morning exercise class at Downsize Fitness, in Addison, Texas, Jan. 3, 2013.

Many people who are disabled or have a condition that limits their ability to exercise might someday benefit from an exercise pill. A compound is being studied that gives people the benefits of exercise without having to work out.

The compound called GW1516, or simply GW, has been around for the past 20 years, according to scientists, who say it has been used illegally by some athletes to improve their performance.

Researchers at Salk Institute in La Jolla, California have a different goal in mind, helping people with conditions like heart disease, diabetes and muscular dystrophy that are physically unable to exercise.

The compound has the potential to give them the healthful benefits of exercise without actually having to do it.

Michael Downes is a senior author of a paper published in Cell Metabolism that described how GW benefited mice in the lab.

“And what we’ve shown is that you don’t have to train to benefit from this drug because it engineers the body so that you are making maximum use of your muscles that you have,” said Downes, “and you are maxing out as far as you can with your muscles the endurance that you can do.”

To confirm and better understand the physical endurance pathway, researchers genetically engineered mice to have permanently activated PPAR delta, a gene that switches on the pathway.

Instead of burning glucose for energy, which is normal for couch potatoes, the mice burned fat to fuel their muscles similar to what’s seen in marathon runners.

Then researchers gave normal mice the compound GW, activating the same endurance pathway.

Downes said those mice were able to run 70 percent further on a treadmill than untreated mice before becoming exhausted or what athletes call “hitting the wall.”

Weiwei Fan, the study’s lead author, said GW improves and repairs the structure of weak muscles.

Fan said researchers believe it could do the same thing in people who are sedentary without working out.

“The reason our lab is interested in this field, exercised-induced benefits, is we want to give the something to people who are not able to exercise,” said Fan.

Researchers say drug companies have expressed an interest in the compound, which could be turned into a pill that could improve fat burning and muscle strength in obese individuals and those suffering from conditions like type 2 diabetes and muscular dystrophy.

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