MAVERICK LIFE: WELLNESS

Exercise in a pill? Yes, but don’t ditch your running shoes yet

By Emilie Gambade 2 March 2020

NEW YORK - JUNE 21: Yoga enthusiasts from across the country participate in the annual "Summer Solstice in Times Square Yoga-thon" June 21, 2007 in New York City. The summer solstice is the first official day of summer and the longest day of the year. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Many research have been showing that physical exercise can not only improve our general wellbeing but can also be linked to better mental health. But what if there was a pill that mimicked the effects of exercise… Would you take it?

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In 2017, biologist and director of the gene expression laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, Ronald Mark Evans, introduced to the world (well, to the New Yorker journalist, Nicola Twilley) two mice named, respectively, Couch Potato Mouse and Lance Armstrong Mouse.

Both rodents, whose names should give you an idea of their physical appearances, had been fed the same – a diet made of “almost entirely of fat and sugar and [which] is said to taste like cookie dough”. While Couch Potato was chubby, “lethargic”, and with “rolls of fat”, Lance Armstrong was lean and fit.

The reason? An extra ingredient in Lance Armstrong Mouse’s diet: a chemical compound known as GW1516, or 516, “a drug that confers the beneficial effects of exercise without the need to move a muscle”.

No couch potato

When did exercise start? At the beginning of time. Back when humans were hunter-gatherers, a physical workout was a daily prerequisite and being fit was a survival feature.

Run for life? Yep. Forget about a tailor-made workout programme created by a coach, this was intuitive all-at-once mobility, resistance, cardio exercise at its best.

And then? It varied from one place and culture to another: “In China, the philosophical teachings of Confucius encouraged participation in regular physical activity,” say Lance C. Dalleck and Dr Len Kravitz, while in India, “Buddhism and Hinduism emphasised spirituality and tended to neglect the development of the body”.

Ah. Back in the East, war was the driving force for training and fitness was used “to create more able soldiers to help expand the empire”.

Still no aerobics. Not yet, but in Ancient Greece in 2500BC – 200BC, palaestras (sort of Virgin Active sans women and tech) were a thing and a healthy body was said to be the key to a healthy mind.

Say more. Remember, the Olympic Games originated in Ancient Greece, in 776 BC (0fficially), so they knew a thing or two about exercise…

Ah, gotcha! But in 1922, Archibald Hill, a British physiologist, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with German physician Otto Meyerhof thanks to their work studying muscle energy metabolism.

Muscle energy metabolism? Yes, running every morning for over three hours, “he showed that running a dash relies on energy stores which afterwards are replenished by increased oxygen consumption”.

And? It wouldn’t be until after World War II that fitness became trendy and not before the Sixties that aerobic exercise became popular, thanks often to the military that was a great advocate for regular exercise.

And Jane Fonda! Indeed! On 24 April 1982, she released a VHS called Jane Fonda’s Workout, based on her exercise book – a New York Times bestseller – instantly launching aerobics, leg warmers and fluorescent bodycons into posterity. It sold 17 million copies worldwide.

Is it a thing, the exercise pill?

Yes, it is, but don’t ditch your gym card just yet. GW1516 was developed back in the Nineties, and then dropped by the company that was working on it when results of a long-term toxicity test showed that mice which had been given the drug had “tumours all over their bodies, from the tongue to the testes”, says The New Yorker article.

Still, the results were promising, and fast-forward to the 2000s and a few scientists are still testing the 516 compound – at less toxic levels – and developing new ones like Compound 14, to see how it can be used to mimic exercise sans the sweat and effort.

And even though the drug hasn’t been approved yet and was added in 2009 on to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances, “plenty of people are taking it. Once the structure of a new compound has been published, chemical-supply laboratories are free to synthesise it for sale, ‘for research purposes only,’” says Twilley.

Ditch the pill and the gadgets?

Shake Weights: Launched in 2009 through TV commercials, the Shake Weight, a dumbbell that you can jiggle like a cocktail shaker, was supposed to tone arms and shoulders like never before. Except it didn’t and instead became great spoof material for comedians the world round.

Ace Power or iGallop: Another “sexually suggestive exercise contraption”, as told by Business Insider, a horse-riding simulator “for those who like to ride the horse in front of TV and in home comfort of their own space”.

Gravity Boots: Also called ‘inversion therapy’, gravity boots are supposed to work the “full rectus abdominus muscle very effectively”. That is, if you’re first okay with being hanged upside down by your feet.

In numbers

34: The percentage of US adults who are physically inactive. Almost 40% are classified as obese.

1.4: The number of insufficiently active people around the world, in billions, according to the World Health Organisation, which includes 38.2% of South Africans.

17,191,762: The number of gym workouts in Cape Town, according to a 2018 survey by Discovery, the ‘top active’ city in South Africa.

150: The WHO weekly recommended number of minutes of ‘moderate-intensity exercise’ for adults, or 75 minutes of ‘vigorous-intensity activity’.

Mighty words

“All my friends who work out all the time, they’re going for knee replacements, hip replacements—they’re a disaster.” – President Donald J Trump

“To this day my arms, shoulders, breasts, and thighs are fuller. I have a little mommy pouch, and I’m in no rush to get rid of it. I think it’s real. Whenever I’m ready to get a six-pack, I will go into beast zone and work my ass off until I have it. But right now, my little FUPA and I feel like we are meant to be.” Beyonce

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