It’s an incredibly seductive idea: instead of getting on the treadmill every day, you just take a pill and voila-fat gets burned. That’s what Dr. Vihang Narkar, assistant professor at the UT Health Science Center Houston, found when he gave mice a drug called Aicar. Even though these mice had never exercised, they ran 40-50% farther and longer and had less fat than control mice. Dr. Narkar says this result was completely unexpected.
“40-50% is a huge improvement in muscle performance, without having to exercise. If a person simply exercises for over a month, he’s not going to get 50% increase in ability.”
How does this magic pill work? It signals to your body to build more powerhouses within the muscle cells. That allows you to work longer, and burn more fat even while resting. This mimics what exercise does naturally. And it could be a huge help to people like Wendy Wilkerson.
“Before I was injured, I was very athletic. I played volleyball. I ran track…”
Wilkerson was paralyzed from the waist down in an auto accident over 30 years ago. She’s now an attorney and an advocate for people with disabilities. She says that nearly 1 in 3 people with disabilities are considered obese, because it’s so hard for them to get proper exercise.
“We’re just challenged in terms of really trying to keep the weight off, diet, and our goal is to feel good, but often, it’s just sometimes hard to keep up.”
This is who Dr. Narkar says the pill is intended for: people with spinal chord injuries, diabetes, and severe obesity, who really can’t exercise. He says emphatically that it should be banned for athletes. But what about the rest of us?
“I don’t want people to think that you just pop this pill and then you stay in your couch, watch TV, and don’t do anything physical and then you expect to be strong and healthy.”
Dr. Gerard Francisco is chairman of physical medicine and rehabilitation at UT. He’s excited about how this pill could help his patients, but cautions that a seeming miracle pill like this isn’t a substitute for exercise.
“Exercise is good for the heart, for the lungs, for the brain, for the bones, for the kidneys, name it, exercise affects that. And I’m not sure that we know right now how this pill is going to affect the other systems”
In any case, it could take 10 years for an exercise pill like this to hit the market, and no one’s sure who it will be marketed to. Wendy Wilkerson doesn’t want to wait that long.
“I really miss that feeling, there’s nothing like it when you wear yourself out and get your heart rate up to where it’s supposed to be and there’s no way that I can do that sitting in a chair”
It’s just not clear right now whether a pill can give her that feeling.