Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 15 January 2012





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The exercise pill

Now that there is a pill for more or less everything, this had to happen - researchers claim to have created a magical pill which apparently provides all the same benefits of exercising without the exertion.

To be frank, not many people actually like to exercise. They would rather sit on the couch and watch the telly. The only exercise they usually get in this process is a highly coordinated movement that brings a cup or glass of beverage to their lips, without even moving their eyes from the screen.

Exercise is hard work. One literally has to ‘work out’. It bathes you in sweat and makes you breathe harder. So, who in his right mind would oppose a pill that can give the same benefits and inspiration, without the perspiration?

Researchers in the US claim that a hormone naturally found in muscle cells that triggers the calorie-burning benefits of exercise, may have potential as an obesity-fighting drug.

The newly identified hormone, called Irisin, increases in the body during exercise, boosting energy expenditure and controlling blood glucose levels. The researchers had found that short treatment of obese mice with Irisin improved their glucose control and caused a small amount of weight loss.

Medical experts from the Harvard Medical School say the new hormone could lead to cures or treatments for obesity, diabetes and even cancer, apart from its benefit as an ‘exercise machine’.

Here’s how it is supposed to work: The chemical, named after the Greek messenger goddess Iris, helps to produce ‘healthy’ brown fat that burns off weight but largely disappears as we age.

It is replaced by “bad” white fat which typically sits around a person’s waist.


According to a report in the UK Telegraph, Prof Bruce Spiegelman, who led the study, believes Irisin would lead to better therapies for any illness that can be combated or reduced by exercise.

“Whether longer treatment with Irisin and/or higher doses would cause more weight loss remains to be determined. The explosive increase in obesity and diabetes renders attractive the therapeutic potential of Irisin in these and related disorders,” he said.

The breakthrough is an important step in understanding the biological mechanisms that translate physical exercise into beneficial changes throughout the body, both in healthy people and in preventing or treating disease.

This is no doubt an important discovery, but can it totally replace exercise and diet ? Apparently not. Researchers have warned that the discovery will not allow people to skip the exercises totally and build muscles by taking Irisin supplements. Diabetics should also stick to their dietary habits.

However, the good news is that it should be possible to move an Irisin-based drug rapidly into clinical testing – perhaps within two years. That would be one more supplement in your arsenal of health-boosting supplements only some of which have beneficial qualities.

But everything has a price and so will Irisin when it comes to the market. Exercise has always been free, will always be, unless you want a gym membership thrown in.


It does not cost a cent to walk a few kilometres a day at least three or four days a week. I somehow try to do so. You do not even have to consciously do it as an exercise.

Just walk or cycle to the junction instead of taking the car or motorcycle to buy your newspaper and loaf of bread. That will help burn a few calories while saving fuel and the environment. As an added benefit, you can watch the world pass by.

Exercise also helps make you ‘feel good’. You feel fresh and rejuvenated after a brisk walk or a set of exercises. That good feeling is carried over to the rest of the day, making it more productive.

Diet is the other most important factor. In today’s dining environment, it could be somewhat hard to avoid unhealthy choices.

But cooking at home can be a viable answer, as long as you keep salt, fat and oil within reasonable limits.

There are plenty of people who believe that pills can literally take care of every ailment regardless of their diet. Yes, pills may give you some leeway with your diet, but they cannot redeem you totally if your dieting habits tilt heavily in favour of fats, sugars and oils. And exercise is even more important if you do consume such foods, however healthy you may be. That is the way to a healthy heart and sound mind.

Talking of a sound mind, meditation (the other side of the exercise coin) is often said to be extremely effective for a range of medical conditions such as high blood pressure.


One can meditate regardless of one’s religion – it is a way of controlling the mind by concentrating on one thing, such as breathing in and out. Most of us find it difficult to ‘find the time’ to meditate thanks to a rat-race lifestyle, but all it takes is 15 minutes. So far, there has been no supplement that can give the same effect.

There indeed are a plethora of supplements in the form of oils, capsules and tablets in the market that promise everything from hair regeneration to stoppage of ageing.

Most of these are backed by huge marketing campaigns with dubious claims and slogans, but a fair number of consumers are duped by these ‘kokatath thailayas’(panacea for all ills).

There could indeed be supplements that work as promised - we hope the new health and drugs policies now taking shape will include provisions for screening dietary, herbal and vitamin supplements.

The bottomline is that medicines and supplements cannot always be the answer for various ailments if we do not follow certain other guidelines such as those on exercise and diet. The new ‘exercise pill’ should be warmly welcomed because it gives a new ray of hope especially to those who cannot undertake vigorous exercise due to reasons of age, disability or disease. But all others should continue with their exercise regimen even if the pill becomes available as an option. It may be hard work, but that is the key to a long life.



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