Right Now the Exercise Pill Is Nothing But a Beautiful Fantasy

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Get acquainted with some dumbbells. Photo: BUCK Studio/Corbis

You may have seen (and rejoiced at) headlines about scientists developing exercise pills. While it's true that great minds are investigating ways to make your muscles stronger and spur your fat cells to burn calories instead of store them, we're a long way from seeing those discoveries result in new drugs — and even if they do, it's unlikely that they'll ever fully replace an actual workout.

In the latest study to cause a glut of gleeful headlines, researchers at the University of Sydney took muscle biopsies from four plucky subjects before and after they rode a stationary bike all-out for ten minutes. They found that this short burst of intense exercise affected muscles in over 1,000 different ways on a molecular level, and they created a "blueprint" of these changes. The goal: to narrow down the most important ones, then develop drugs that mimic them. But this process isn't going to happen quickly. As lead author Nolan Hoffman, Ph.D., told Quartz, it took them three years to get to this point, and a pill is at least a decade away.

When we do get an exercise pill, who will it be for, exactly? The authors cite people with health conditions who would benefit from working out but can't for medical reasons — like those with heart disease, type-2 diabetes, or neurological disorders. (Other experts point to people with paralysis and spinal-cord injuries.) While the pill could offer some benefits for the rest of us, it won't ever be a substitute for good old sweat. As Melissa Dahl explained last year on Science of Us, pills can't replace the many other mental and physical benefits of working out. So until science can truly hack all of that stuff, it's off to the gym.