The Current

A pill that replicates a cardio workout — would you take it?

Want to avoid gym fees and sweaty armpits? Researchers are close to creating a pill that mimics exercise. It has a lot of potential, but comes with some consequences.
Why hit the gym, when you could pop an exercise pill? (iStock/Getty Images)

Read Story Transcript

Imagine working out from the comfort of your couch.

No sweating. No guilt for not going to the gym. No monthly fees — all you have to do is swallow a pill.

Researchers are close to developing a drug that has the potential to reprogram genes and recalibrate muscles in a way that mimics exercise.

The idea has piqued the interest of athletes and those who want an edge on the competition. But the drug is also targeted at benefiting those with disabilities or mobility issues that prevent physical exercise.

Ronald Evans, a biologist who is working on the pill, says the effect specifically replicates endurance exercise in the body, such as a spin class or running, but not strengthening exercises like weight-lifting.

"I don't know if it would release those endorphins that you get from exercising, and that's why I do it, to clear my mind." 1:02

As the pill has only been tested on mice, Evans says there is no way to determine if endorphins are released.

He tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that at this point in developing the pill, there are very few side-effects.

"Most of the downside of exercise is people who run their whole life; they get injuries and their knees break down or their cartilage breaks down, but in this type of exercise in the pill, if we get that benefit there is no downside."

The pill has been only been tested on mice so far, so scientists are unsure what its effect on humans could be. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

No short cuts for endorphins

Professor Vybarr Cregan-Reid doesn't agree. He sees a lot of issues surrounding the pill and the potential consequences to the body and mind.

Take for instance endorphins.

"Endorphins are important neurotransmitters that operate all around the body, they dilate our veins and make oxygen more freely available," he says. 

"They're wonderful things." 

"It's sedentariness that's bad for us and anything that discourages movement is fundamentally a bad idea."

Biologist Ronald Evans who is working on the exercise pill explains how the drug works. 0:58

Beyond his concern of misuse of the drug, Cregan-Reid also questions what the lack of exercise will do to the body's bone density.

"This is a pill that means that we can exercise a lot less and still get the same metabolic advantages from having done the exercise. Our bones aren't going to be changing as a result of taking this pill," he tells Tremonti.

As humans have become more sedentary over the centuries, bone density has dropped, he says.

"What we really, really don't need is a pill that's going to encourage us to do even less, and for our bone density to drop even further."

Exercising is about much more than just the body, it's about social and mental benefits that a pill can't offer, says author Vybarr Cregan-Reid. (

'A hack that's gone too far'

Cregan-Reid argues exercise doesn't need to be optimized.

"It's a really holistic thing. Running is the most natural form of exercise. It's something that we've done as a species for about 2.3 million years," he says.

"And you can't just take a pill, or take one aspect of it, and assume that all of the other things don't matter."

While he agrees there are obvious benefits for someone not able to exercise, he sees the pill as "a hack that's gone too far."

"Exercise is already a hack. Exercise is already something that we have to do because our lives are really out of joint with what our bodies are supposed to be doing, what our bodies need," says Cregan-Reid, author of Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human. 

"The reason that we exercise is because we're not doing manual or physical work anymore, and we're becoming too sedentary, and now this pill seems like a hack for a hack."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin and Alison Masemann.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.