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An arcane paper about how exercise regulates the biochemistry of muscle published in the November 2015 issue of Cell journal sparked news outlets to claim that scientists were on the verge of creating an “exercise pill.” This would mean that we could all just pop a pill and skip the gym.

Our first question should be how in the world could news outlets ever make the leap from an obscure paper with the title, “Global Phosphoproteomic Analysis of Human Skeletal Muscle Reveals a Network of Exercise-Regulated Kinases and AMPK Substrates” to an exercise pill? What most people may not realize is that much of the science news we read every day is passed on to news outlets by university public relations departments. As result, many of the scientific “firsts” in the news aren’t really firsts at all, but are hyped by over-zealous public relations staffers. Science writers, overwhelmed with producing content 24 hours a day seven days a week, have little time to check out the veracity of every claim on every press release.

The original article examined what happened at the biochemical level after a bout of exercise. There were more than 1,000 changes on more than 500 proteins as a result of physical activity. The process was so complex that the authors had to rely on computer programs just to figure out what was happening and why. Perhaps the most interesting thing was that despite the hype, one news outlet actually found out that the authors were planning on using this blueprint of exercise-induced protein changes to create an exercise pill. One of the authors wrote: “We’ve created an exercise blueprint that lays the foundation for future treatments, and the end goal is to mimic the effects of exercise…(in a pill).”

What could possibly go wrong trying to recreate exactly more than 1,000 changes on more than 500 proteins? The scientific hubris here is a bit disturbing. While we need this knowledge to help further our understanding of the effects of exercise, and a pill such as the author proposes may help certain infirm patients, the big market obviously is the average couch potato. With several very simple diet pills now yanked from the market for killing unsuspecting dieters, what could possibly go wrong with this hair-brained plan to create an exercise pill?


“An Exercise Pill? What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” first appeared as a post on the Regenexx blog.
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