An “exercise pill”? Take two and call us in the morning

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The following is a guest post by Carol E. Torgan, PhD, FACSM, a member of our editorial team on She is a health scientist and consultant based in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Torgan received her PhD in Kinesiology from The University of Texas and was a Research Associate and Assistant Research Professor in the Division of Cardiology at Duke University School of Medicine. While a Research Fellow at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), she transitioned into health communication. Dr. Torgan’s research focus is the adaptability of skeletal muscle, spanning from human performance to cellular biology. Her interests include sports medicine, exercise physiology, and the role of technology in preventive medicine. She is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.


It happens almost every time a scientific study is published that shows a new substance appears to have a benefit similar to exercise. Some journalists seem unable to resist mention of an “exercise pill.” Most recently, an article in the journal Nature titled, “A PCG1-a-dependent myokine that drives brown-fat-like development of white fat and thermogenesis,” became “Discovery could lead to an exercise pill” in the MIT Technology Review.

Over the last several years we’ve had headlines such as Could a pill replace exercise? from Scientific American, Couch mouse to Mr. Mighty by pills alone from The New York Times, and Exercise pill hope for depression from BBC News.

In the model of’s 10 review criteria, I offer up this check list of 20+ criteria by which journalists can assess whether any product or substance should be considered to have benefits similar to exercise. These criteria represent the health benefits of physical activity for which there are strong or moderate evidence, as documented in the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

Strong evidence

  •         Lower risk of early death
  •         Lower risk of coronary heart disease
  •         Lower risk of stroke
  •         Lower risk of high blood pressure
  •         Lower risk of adverse blood lipid profile
  •         Lower risk of type 2 diabetes
  •         Lower risk of metabolic syndrome
  •         Lower risk of colon cancer
  •         Lower risk of breast cancer
  •         Prevention of weight gain
  •         Weight loss, particularly when combined with reduced calorie intake
  •         Improved cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness
  •         Prevention of falls
  •         Reduced depression
  •         Better cognitive function (for older adults)


Moderate to strong evidence

  •        Better functional health (for older adults)
  •        Reduced abdominal obesity


Moderate evidence

  •         Lower risk of hip fracture
  •         Lower risk of lung cancer
  •         Lower risk of endometrial cancer
  •         Weight maintenance after weight loss
  •         Increased bone density
  •         Improved sleep quality


If you catch a journalist (or a scientist who is describing his or her research to reporters) mention “exercise pill,” tell him/her to take two aspirin, review this list, and then give us a call in the morning.

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Comments (6)

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February 20, 2012 at 9:52 am

Just a small additional point: I don’t think any “exercise pill” would give me the same enjoyment as going outside and just doing some exercise either.


    February 20, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    Chris, I completely agree with you!

Phil Costello

February 22, 2012 at 11:55 am

Thanks Carol – a well informed populace will lead to healthier, happier people. Too many folks seek the quick-fix magic pill (or exercise option or supplement, etc) – prudent and purposeful effort works best.