To anyone who’s dragged themselves out of bed for for a 6 a.m. spin class, the idea of popping a pill that delivers the health benefits of exercise might seem like a pipe dream. A study published Tuesday in Cell, however, appears to answer the prayers of the aspirational-but-lazy. It presents a treatmimicss at least one of the long-term benefits of exercise, and as a strange added bonus, it also seems to mimic some effects of low-carb diets.
The treatment described in the new study, created by Bina Joe, Ph.D., isn’t actually a pill yet, but it introduces a recipe for the future, identifyiyingng a crucial ingredient. In previous trials, Joe, the founder of the University of Toledo’s Center for Hypertension and Personalized Medicine, demonstrated that the formula can mimic the benefits of exercise in mice. She also believes that there’s enough literature to suggest it will work the same way in people:
“The whole point of this paper is that if people can’t exercise, this could be an intervention by which you jack up the same chemicals that are enhanced by exercise through a nutritional approach and derive the same benefits from exercise,” Joe tells Inverse.
According to the CDC, about one in three American adults have high blood pressure, which greatly increases their risk of heart disease and stroke. It’s well established that exercise can keep high blood pressure under control.
Joe’s treatment is intended to reduce blood pressure as exercise does, but its mechanism for doing so is similar to that seen in the keto diet. It’s based on a molecule that is currently swirling through the body of any keto disciple: beta hydroxybutyrate (BHB).
BHB is actually a type of ketone body, Joe says, referring to the byproduct produced the body when it burns fat instead of carbohydrates as fuel. What makes it interesting in this case is that it appears to be linked to blood pressure: In the study, mice with high blood pressure (the result of a high-salt diet) didn’t have a lot of BHB circulating in their blood. Joe wanted to know whether increasing the amount of BHB through an external input would lower the blood pressure.
She managed to increase BHB without forcing the rats to exercise by giving them a precursor chemical called 1,3-butanediol, which breaks down naturally into BHB when it reaches the liver. This chemical essentially tricks the body into increasing its natural levels of BHB, which in turn seemed to reduce blood pressure.. without the need for diet or exercise.
“We asked the question: By using this precursor, can we enhance circulation of BHB? And yes, we measured it and it was higher, and there was lower blood pressure,” Joe says. “That’s when we knew what we were looking at was the correct direction.”
If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is: The chemical has yet to go through essential toxicity trials, which are important because it might have some unexpected effects — both good and bad — as the dosage increases and affects other tissues. Joe also adds that she’s not particularly sure how her pill might affect people who aren’t “salt-sensitive” but still have high blood pressure.
“There are some tests which may indicate that some people may not be helped. Or some people may be hurt,” she adds. “We don’t know. For the most part, the concept is correct. In salt-sensitive individuals, if we increase ketone bodies we do have benefits derived at some level.”
Whether this “exercise pill” really is a silver bullet comes down to what each individual is looking for in their capsule-based alternative to exercise. If swole is the goal, this pill probably won’t suffice, but it does offer a potential workaround for people looking to reap long-term health benefits from working out.