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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Exercise in a Pill

It's a pleasure to be back for another guest stint at Prawfs.  I bring to your attention an article in last week's NYT.  It describes recently published research on drugs that seem to mimic or augment the beneficial effects of exercise with little or no actual exercise required:

Researchers at the Salk Institute in San Diego reported that they had found two drugs that did wonders for the athletic endurance of couch potato mice. One drug, known as Aicar, increased the mice’s endurance on a treadmill by 44 percent after just four weeks of treatment.

A second drug, GW1516, supercharged the mice to a 75 percent increase in endurance but had to be combined with exercise to have any effect.

If such drugs are safe and effective in humans, they hold out the promise that we may be able to get the positive health effects of exercise without much exercise.  Millions of people who go to the gym every morning could instead spend their limited time doing something else.  Yet, one detects from the article a hesitation to embrace that possibility.  People seem much more eager to play up the possibility that the drug will "help people who are too frail to exercise and those with health problems like diabetes that are improved with exercise." 

There are probably many reasons for this.  For example, researchers may focus on drugs that treat the sorts of medical conditions for which the FDA is likely to grant approval.  Similarly, perhaps it is easier (ironically) to get research grants to treat specific medical diseases rather than conditions that affect the entire population of healthy people.  I suspect though, that there is a general discomfort in supporting drugs that are meant to enhance human performance rather than serve as a therapy for some disorder.  Aside from concerns about safety, though, it's hard to see why.  People seem to take too seriously the adage, "No pain, no gain."  Sure, if you like the positive psychological effects of actual exercise, go ahead and exercise.  But if you don't, feel free to embrace the possibility that, some day in the still distant future, you won't have to. 

Posted by Adam Kolber on August 6, 2008 at 08:38 AM | Permalink


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The hype on this study seems way overstated. All they found was that giving certain drugs to mice may have switched on certain genes that affect muscle endurance. We don't know that this drug would work in humans in the first place, let alone that the drug would have any of the many other benefits of exercise (decreased risk of many diseases and longer lifespan, better mood and cognitive performance, etc., etc., etc.) I'm not sure why this would be labeled "exercise in a pill" any more than steroids have that label.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Aug 6, 2008 3:08:52 PM

"*If* such drugs are safe and effective...."

Or perhaps it's that other adage: "if it's too good to be true, then it probably is." And it seems to be another rule of thumb that the media report initial research findings on this or that "miraculous" drug, only to discover later that its benefits are far more modest than originally touted, and what is worse, we've now discovered deleterious side effects that further change the cost/benefits equation. This doesn't detract from your point about research into preventive public health measures, although I think we'd be better served by addressing inequality and poverty by way of affecting the health of the entire population, as Daniel Goldberg has tirelessly argued in a series of posts over at his Medical Humanities Blog (e.g.: http://www.medhumanities.org/2008/06/on-income-inequ.html#comments)

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 6, 2008 1:13:50 PM

Whenever I hear about this pill, I remember an old health club commercial from the late 1980s/early 1990s with Cher. Her line in the commercial was "If a great body came in a box, everyone would have one." Perhaps fitness has a relational utility to us -- only people with discipline, money or great genes have it, so we prize it. In hard economic times, only the wealthy are fat, so we value fatness. If we give fitness to the masses, then we'll have to start worshipping something else.

Posted by: Christine Hurt | Aug 6, 2008 1:02:27 PM

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