Pill-Powered Fitness Revolution: Can Exercise Pills Shape a Healthier Tomorrow?

In a hospital in northern Norway, just south of the Arctic Circle, a pioneering experiment has been launched that could revolutionize how we approach ageing in the years to come. ExPlas – exercised plasma – is a clinical trial that involves taking blood plasma from young and healthy adults who exercise regularly and injecting it into people aged between 50 and 75 who are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

This is the first time this has been tested in humans, and the results will be available in 2025. The hope is that this will represent a new way of rejuvenating the minds and bodies of older people, and perhaps even all of us who lead largely sedentary lives.

Studies have long revealed that exercise is one of the most effective medicines. Research has shown that exercising can reduce the risk of dementia by up to 45%, along with maintaining strong bones, supple blood vessels and muscle fibres that can replenish themselves rather than fading away.

In August 2023, a new study in the British Medical Journal demonstrated that even an hour and a quarter of moderate exercise a week – half the recommended amount – can reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and premature death, compared to doing no exercise. Despite this, a quarter of the UK population is still classed as inactive, and a survey of more than 100 countries revealed that nearly a third of people do next to no exercise.

The drug industry is now attempting to address this, and scientists across the world have been searching for exercise mimetics – pills or injections that can replicate some of exercise’s beneficial effects on the body. In 2012, scientists discovered a hormone called irisin that is released by muscles during exercise – a messenger chemical that communicates with different parts of the body.

In November 2023, Wrann and her colleagues demonstrated that irisin can reach the brain and clear the toxic amyloid plaques involved in Alzheimer’s disease. This breakthrough has led to the creation of Aevum Therapeutics, a spin-off company with the aim of commercialising irisin as the world’s first exercise-based treatment. If successful, this could be a novel Alzheimer’s treatment or a broadly beneficial exercise drug.

Andrew Budson, professor of neurology at Boston University, believes that the idea of replicating the beneficial effects of exercise is a compelling one. He says that, on a busy day, it would be great to take a drug instead of missing out on the health benefits of exercise completely.

However, researchers such as Wrann insist that the main target group for exercise drugs is not the time-poor or the lazy, but rather disabled and elderly patients who have become housebound or bedridden through enforced inactivity. In Tokyo, scientists have been searching for exercise’s secret ingredient – the element that protects against osteoporosis and sarcopenia – with the idea of turning it into a new drug for preventing frailty and perhaps even restoring the ability to move.

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