Could “Exercise in a Pill” Become a Reality One Day?

A new study examines how benefits of exercise can be packaged into a supplement.

Photo: GettyImages

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Exercise in a pill sounds pretty good, right? Well, while there is no pill that will substitute a healthy lifestyle and exercise routine just yet, a recent study has scientists wondering, “What if?” 

Researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) found that physical exercise results in specific molecular signals that could potentially be taken in supplement form to allow people who can’t exercise the opportunity to reap its benefits, particularly in the context of certain diseases.

ANU is examining the messages that our bodies send to our brains right after exercise and, more importantly, how those messages impact things like age-related eye health and the central nervous system. The team is posing the question of what would happen if they attempted to replicate those messages via a pill for at-risk patients.

“The beneficial messages being sent to the central nervous system during exercise are packaged up in what are known as lipid particles. We are essentially prescribing the molecular message of exercise to those who physically aren’t able to,” Riccardo Natoli, associate professor and head of Clear Vision Research at ANU, said in a press release.

He says the molecules could potentially one day be bottled up into a pill to be taken like a vitamin. However, this may be a long ways away. As of 2021, the team’s initial research shows that exercise benefits eyesight, but determining how beneficial it is and the reason for the effects has proven challenging.

“We know exercise is good for our eyesight, but to what extent is still unknown. Our aim is to understand the benefits of exercise at the molecular level and how it is beneficial for the central nervous system and the retina,” study author Dr. Joshua Chu-Tan said.

The hope is that one day there may be supplement that could help patients suffering from diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s who would benefit from exercise but can’t physically do it.

“It’s been suggested that prescribing exercise to patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s can help improve and slow down the disease progression,” Chu-Tan says. The researchers added that if this futuristic medicine becomes a reality someday, it would be intended for patients who have restricted movement, not for your everyday gym-goer who would rather be a couch potato.

So, while this isn’t a magical exercise pill that will give you abs of steel while binging the latest on Netflix, it’s certainly an exciting progression in exercise science. For now, we’ll stick to our burpees, squats and deadlifts!