There are a million-and-one benefits to working out, but would you give them all up for an exercise pill?
That’s what scientists at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California are trying to do by developing a drug known as 516. But it’s not going to help you sweat or sculpt perfect abs.
Instead, 516 is designed to target those who can’t exercise because of diseases or other physical conditions. According to Ronald Evans, director of the gene expression laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, 516 is intended to be “a backdoor into the exercise genetic network” that is activated when we work out.
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“We are taking this concept and trying to develop a drug that can help us game the system that is naturally activated during exercise,” Evans told The Washington Post of the compounds that are designed to help improve endurance and reduce fat.
What is the exercise pill 516?
Researchers have been working on the 516 exercise pill for more than a decade, and it’s intended to help the body break down fat — and not carbohydrates — much like elite athletes do. The thought is that mimicking this chemical process through an exercise pill could create the same results without having to move a muscle.
But they’re not working on it to fully turn us into a sedentary bunch. Instead, the goal is to help improve the physical head — and reduce muscle wasting — that happens when people can’t exercise at all.
There are many reasons why people cannot run or walk or exercise,” Evans told the newspaper. “If you can bring them a small molecule that can convey the benefits of training, you can really help a lot of people.”
The FDA doesn’t currently recognize the “inability to exercise” as a need for a drug, so approvals for 516 are a long way off. To work around this, Evans and his team are specifically focusing on it for patients suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
“This [disease] afflicts kids who can’t exercise and ultimately die of muscle wasting, often at a relatively early age, at 15 or 16,” Evans says. “It’s a disease with a large unmet medical need.”
But it’s not without risk: One trial on 516 showed mice had a greater chance of developing cancer after taking it, according to The New Yorker. Other experimental version of 516 have been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency to stop athletes and bodybuilders from getting an unfair advantage from the supplement in additional to regular diet and exercise.
516 isn’t the only exercise pill on the horizon
Other scientists are at work on their own versions of the exercise pill.
One such pill, known as compound 14, works by “by fooling cells into thinking they have run out of energy,” Ali Tavassoli, a professor of chemical biology at Britain’s University of Southampton, told The Washington Post.
“The most startling results have been the effect of the molecule on glucose tolerance and body weight in a mouse model of diet-induced obesity,” he added. “It improves glucose tolerance and reduces body mass.”
This could be a welcome remedy for the ever-increasing levels of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and related diseases.
You won’t be able to get compound 14 in stores anytime soon, though. It hasn’t been tested on humans.
“While our results are promising, we are quite a way from anything going into the clinic,” Tavassoli said.