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  • Exercise in a pill – a slippery slope

    Scientists at the Salk Institute know that people can improve endurance through training. Along with the ability to do an activity for longer periods of time, people’s ability to burn fat improves; additional mitochondria and blood vessels are built; and muscle fibers that prefer fat-burning over sugar-burning are increased. All of these are contributors to improved health.

    But, what if you cannot do aerobic exercise? Age, obesity, heart disease, pulmonary disease or other physical limitations restrict some people’s ability to exercise. Scientists set out to explore whether or not they could replicate some of the benefits of exercise through pharmaceuticals.

    When I read the story line, I couldn’t help but think of the development of a synthetic version of EPO (erythropoietin) the drug used to treat patients with kidney failure. Your body produces EPO naturally in the kidneys. Naturally produced EPO is essential for red blood cell production. Red blood cells carry fresh oxygen to every part of your body. Those with kidney failure end up severely anemic, with very low red blood cell count and fast-failing health.

    We all know that EPO ended up in the hands of doctors and athletes who were looking for performance gains. More oxygen delivered to working cells means a greater ability to do work and recover.

    Back to the possibility of “exercise in a pill.” The Salk scientists gave mice a chemical compound that allowed the mice to run longer than those not given the compound. The mice in the control group could run about 160 minutes before exhaustion, while the mice receiving the chemical compound could run 270 minutes – or 70% longer!

    Running longer is no benefit to people that cannot run. But, the mice given the drug were resistant to weight gain and they were also more insulin sensitive than the mice without the drug. These two features could provide health benefits those unable to do aerobic exercise.

    Researchers envision several therapeutic applications for this type of drug such as increasing fat burning in people suffering from obesity or type 2 diabetes and improving patients' fitness before and after surgery.

    The therapeutic applications for this drug sound promising, but so do the possibilities of athletic abuse.

    Reference: Sedentary mice given the drug ran longer without training.

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