Exercise pills won't replace traditional activities just yet Getty Images

Exercise pills are an achievable goal, with drugs being developed to mimic the effects of physical activity, but they will be no substitute for the real thing – at least not in the immediate future. A team of researchers has investigated the concept of exercise pills and how they differ to carrying out physical exercise.

Their findings, published in the journal Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, looked at whether exercise pills will achieve their potential as therapies in the near future. The team, from the University of British Columbia, said exercise science and molecular techniques have increased our understanding of the pathways responsive to exercise. Knowing these molecular targets is leading to the development of chemical interventions mimicking the effect of exercise without moving a muscle.

Sedentary lifestyles with little to no exercise increases chronic diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Ismail Laher, study co-author, said: "We have recognised the need for exercise pills for some time, and this is an achievable goal based on our improved understanding of the molecular targets of physical exercise."

The authors said several laboratories are currently developing exercise pills that target skeletal muscle performance, improving strength and energy use – in effect, producing stronger and faster muscles. "This review focuses on the concept of 'exercise pills' and how they mimic the effects produced by physical exercise including oxidative fibre-type transformation, mitochondrial biogenesis, increased fat oxidation, angiogenesis and improvement of exercise capacity."

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Scientists say in the nearer future, pills could help people unable to exercise Reuters

They found that most exercise pills are still in experimental phases, and while they are an achievable goal, none of the candidate pills "fully mimic the full palette of the beneficial effects of exercise". Instead, they appear to provide benefits in some target organs. "Further development of exercise pills that act in combination may be more effective than single compounds," they said.

"Exercise pills are still at the starting line and have a long road ahead before they gain clinical application. However, we expect that as we gain an improved understanding of the molecular mechanism by which exercise induces beneficial effects, we will likely gain increased confidence in creating exercise pills that have minimal side effects with much improved efficacy."

Researchers believe that before being rolled out to the general population, these pills could be helpful for people who are unable to exercise for a number of reasons, such as spinal cord injury

"Clearly people derive many other rewarding experiences from exercise – such as increased cognitive function, bone strength and improved cardiovascular function," said Laher. "It is unrealistic to expect that exercise pills will fully be able to substitute for physical exercise – at least not in the immediate future."