No one really likes working out. It’s exhausting, sweaty, time-consuming, and it requires you to be in close proximity with far too many people with far too little deodorant. Even if you enjoy the occasional lifting session, it’s still a chore to get up early and pump iron or run while your body craves nothing more than the 5 coffees it needs to start the day.
So when a story comes out that says that there might be a better way to get fit, people sit up and listen. According to headlines from around the world, you may soon be able to trade in your sweatbands for a pill, as scientists have discovered a supplement that could “replace exercise”. Apparently, a group of researchers have identified a protein that, if taken as a supplement, could give you the benefits of exercise without having to break out the activewear.
If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it’s pretty much entirely nonsense.
Pills aren’t going to replace exercise any time soon.
Usually when I write about miracle cures, I find a single study that’s been misinterpreted to make wild conclusions in the press — you know the sort. Maybe scientists tested a supplement in bacterial cells, or the industry funded a group of 15 people to eat their food for a week and are now claiming that walnuts can cure influenza.
This time was a bit different.
The news seems to be coming from a press release put out by the University of Michigan about one of their labs. The press release sounds eerily familiar if you’ve read any of the news stories, talking about replacing exercise with a pill, kicking off with the headline “A replacement for exercise: A protein called Sestrin might be responsible for many of the benefits of a good workout”. It’s almost as if many of these headlines are ripped word-for-word from the press release without any journalism at all.
The release then goes on to explain that scientists at the university have been looking into this protein (actually a group of proteins, called Sestrins) for some time, and think that it may be involved in exercise to some extent. They’ve tested it in a couple of non-human models — flies and mice — and think that it’s possible increasing the levels of this protein in the body might help people who have wasted muscles to regenerate.
What they definitely don’t say is that Sestrin supplements will replace exercise. In fact, the lead scientist from the lab explicitly says that they aren’t looking at supplementing Sestrins, instead trying to find other molecules that can increase the amount of Sestrins in your body:
The lab is cutting-edge in many ways — one of their cool innovations was inventing two separate fly exercise machines — but they don’t appear to be looking into any supplements for fitness. The scientists appear to be saying that they will one day potentially have a treatment that they could then possibly test as something that might help people who are bed-bound and have wasted muscles.
In other words, not even the people doing the research agree with the headlines, which I think you’ll agree is a pretty big red flag.
It’s pretty easy to see what’s happening here. Someone’s decided that the lab needs a bit more press, and so a press release was crafted to make the scientists look good. A couple of quotes and a misleading headline and voila: news stories from dozens of publications that make totally nonsense statements about what’s really happening.
It happens all the time.
While we can’t rule out the possibility — who knows what the future might hold — it’s very unlikely that pills will replace exercise any time soon. And the scientists that all the headlines were talking about have barely started down the path of developing a pill, never mind testing it and making sure it works. They’ve done what’s know as identifying a plausible mechanism — essentially, finding a method that could potentially work — but any treatments developed from this are a decade or more down the track.
So no, you can’t “replace exercise with a pill”. Maybe one day in the future, but honestly it seems unlikely.
If you want to get fit, it seems like you’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way: putting on the old activewear and subjecting yourself to a half-hour of tedious torture a few times a week.
Pills can’t make you fit.
And supplements can’t replace exercise.