Ask the Expert: Exercise pills, are they real?

Strengthening the Forces

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By Dr. Darrell Menard OMM MD, Dip Sport Med

Q: I’ve never been an enthusiastic exerciser but I’ve been physically active throughout my adult life. I heard someone on the radio discussing research on drugs that provide the benefits of exercise without having to move a muscle. Is this possible, and if so, are these products safe? – Intrigued

A: Dear Intrigued, bravo on staying physically active. Scientists are working hard to understand how we benefit from exercise on a molecular level. They have discovered that exercise triggers the production of substances that help the body build muscle, improve circulation and enhance muscle biochemistry. They have also discovered that they can synthesize these substances, so people can experience the same benefits without losing one drop of sweat.

Currently there are at least 10 so called “exercise pills”, and they work by a variety of mechanisms. None of these products are approved for human use but they are sold online to those who hope to benefit from them. It is important to note that these pills are designed to mimic one or more of the effects of exercise but none of them comes even close to providing the extensive number of benefits that physical exercise offers.

While “exercise pills” sound like a dream come true, they are far from it. The following are some of the concerns about using these products:

  1. These substances have not been thoroughly tested to ensure they are safe for human use, and at least one of them has caused cancer in rats;
  2. There is no reliable dosing advice available to those who buy these products online;
  3. Physical activity is proven to be effective in preventing and treating many chronic medical problems such as diabetes, depression and osteoarthritis. No exercise pill provides all of these benefits;
  4. These pills target muscle function and cardiovascular performance. They do not provide other important benefits of exercise, such as those related to mental health and bone strength;
  5. Using these substances encourages people to be less active, which can increase the incidence of chronic diseases that these pills do not protect against; and
  6. Social interaction and fun – I doubt they will ever design a pill that is as much fun as a game of ultimate Frisbee.

The bottom line: In the future, exercise pills may offer some benefits to people who are unable to exercise because of disease or disability. However, using these pills would be a giant step backwards for the able-bodied. The reality is that if you want to safely enjoy all the benefits of exercise, you need to stay physically active.

While medication isn’t exercise, exercise continues to be medicine!

Dr. Menard is the Surgeon General’s specialist advisor in sports medicine and has worked extensively with athletes from multiple sports. As part of the Strengthening the Forces team, he works on injury prevention and promoting active living.

Strengthening the Forces is the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) healthy lifestyles promotion program providing expert information, skills and tools for promoting and improving CAF members’ health and well-being.

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