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Getting buff without the sweat is cheating

By Mark Leyner and Dr. Billy Goldberg

What if you could simply swallow a pill and become a buff, shredded, aerobic dynamo all without having to spend one sweaty second in the gym? Wouldn’t an instant fitness drug be great? Maybe not.

We were both mighty intrigued to learn that scientists had developed not one, but two “Mighty Mouse Drugs” that endow mice with all the benefits of having worked out furiously, without the effort of actual exercise. Researchers at the Salk Institute in San Diego reported that a drug called Aicar increased mice’s endurance on a treadmill by 44 percent after just four weeks of treatment and helped them burn more calories and have less fat than untreated mice.  A second drug with the catchy name “GW1516,” when combined with exercise, boosted the mice’s endurance by a whopping 75 percent! 

Both drugs activate PPAR-delta protein which produces more high-endurance Type 1 muscle fibers in the body. Aicar actually mimics the effects of exercise, convincing cells that they’ve burned off energy and need to generate more. As one of the researchers said: “It’s pretty much pharmacological exercise.” The researchers contend that it’s reasonable to assume that these results will apply to people.

A dream for couch potatoes? Watch video

Nevermind that researchers claim they’d use Aicar for diabetics or other sick people who are unable to exercise safely. The phenomenal interest in this drug is about the ability to get buff without getting off the couch.

Once the “wow” factor subsided, the two of us each reacted with our respective ambivalences. Leyner, the inveterate gym rat, bristled at the notion of Adonis-like bodies achieved without the grunting iron-pumping of which he’s almost perversely enamored.  “It’s cheating,” Leyner muttered with a hint of moral superiority.

Billy, whose hectic hospital schedule includes long, exhausting hours in the ER and complex administrative responsibilities, and who lovingly contends with the obligations of a brand new infant at home couldn’t help but be intrigued by the possibility of a pill that would preclude the need to spend hours at a gym.

But we both share a feeling that perhaps something might be lost here. 

Will bench presses, curls, crunches, treadmills, ellipticals, and butt blasters go the way of the blacksmith shop? Will we stand someday with our children and nostalgically watch actors work-out in reconstructed gyms in historical theme parks, the way we watch candle-makers in Williamsburg, Virginia? What will happen to the likes of Jackie Warner and Body By Jake?  Isn’t the impending obsolescence of Richard Simmons enough to cause some serious soul-searching?

Neither of us are Luddites by any stretch of the imagination. We are acutely aware of the monumental effect various miracle drugs have had on the health and well-being of humanity: antibiotics like penicillin, tetracycline, and streptomycin; drugs like Cyclosporin which prevents the rejection of transplanted organs; and neuroprotective drugs now in development like Rember and Dimebon that could possibly stall or even reverse the dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

But we’re becoming a society that believes all our shortcomings and foibles can be pharmaceutically eradicated. Wanna get smarter? There’s a cognitive enhancer like Modafinil for you. Wanna become more empathic, trusting, generous or altruistic? Take some oxytocin. Are you promiscuous, a compulsive gambler, eater, or spender? Too shy? Pop a Prozac, Zoloft, or a Paxil. Wanna be an Iron Man in the boudoir? No problem, bro. We’ve got your Viagra, your Levitra and your Cialis right here.

It’s lazy for us to crave the goal without the effort, without the journey. The philosopher Martin Heidegger said: “Seeking itself is the goal.”

Exercise offers unique and sublime pleasures – all sorts of kinesthetic sensations and endorphin-releasing exertions and intensities that enable us to exult in our physicality. If you seek fitness in a pill, you forego the divinely liberated, creative, meditative forms of cognition that frequently accompany vigorous exercise. There is something inherently satisfying in hard work.

We lose something by seeking these pharmaceutical shortcuts. Our poignant determination to remain vital and sexually attractive and dignified in the face of looming mortality really is life itself.

And what about these mice?  At labs all over the country, we’re gorging mice on Aicar and GW1516, on experimental cognitive enhancers like D-cycloserine and T-588, and on life-expectancy enhancers like Resveratrol (which mimics caloric restriction) and DEHA (diethylhydroxylamine).  Maybe we should be a little more concerned about Mighty Mouse Blowback. Someday, we’re going to be forced to confront marauding hordes (or at the very least, sleeper cells) of supermice – immortal rodents with six-pack abs who can play grandmaster-level chess.